01/12/2012 06:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Out in the Workplace? Some U.S. Industries Are Setting an Example

If you are a gay college student, when you apply for jobs, should you let it show on your résumé, or should you hide it? And what if your main achievements have been with an LGBT group? Should you include them on your résumé? These are tough questions when you consider this sobering map from Freedom to Work showing that employers in a majority of states can legally refuse to interview you just because you are gay, lesbian, or transgender:


Data from a recent study indicate that if you want the job, then no, you shouldn't be out on your résumé. In what has been dubbed the first major audit study to test the receptiveness of employers to gay male job applicants, Andras Tilcsik, a Harvard researcher, suggests that men who identify as gay on their résumés have less success in getting selected for job interviews.

Tilcsik sent two virtually identical résumés (the only difference was that one applicant could be identified as gay from his activities and leadership) to nearly 2,000 employers and found that while ostensibly heterosexual applicants had an 11.5-percent chance of being invited for an interview, equally qualified gay applicants only had a 7.2-percent chance of receiving a positive response. This is a difference of 4.3 percentage points, or about 40 percent. Although the study only focused on gay men, the broader points can be extrapolated to all LGBT-identified people.

But the decisions about being out and open in the workplace don't stop with the application process. In fact, it is just the beginning.

There is no formula for coming out -- in any part of anyone's life. However, there are several important considerations for LGBT people when deciding how and whether to be out at work. To begin:

  • Coming out for LGBT people is a constant process.They must correct assumptions about gender, sexual orientation, their partner's gender, preferred pronouns, relationships, and, ultimately, their life.
  • Demonstrating a trend, a number of companies in the Fortune 500 have LGBT-identified outreach recruiting programs. What's usually lacking? Out applicants.

There is virtue both in being out in the workplace from day one and in changing the system from the inside. But it is crucial to not discount the importance of an LGBT-friendly work environment to making you comfortable and, ultimately, successful.

A recent report from the Center for Work-Life Policy, "The Power of Out," has shown that "for gay and lesbian employees ... a climate that fosters inclusiveness and openness is critical both to the longevity of their tenures and their ability to perform well on the job."

Consider the following findings from the report:

  • The closet is lonely, especially at work: those who are not out at work are 75-percent more likely to feel isolated than those who are out.
  • Being out affects job satisfaction and growth: only 34 percent of closeted gay men feel satisfied with their rate of promotion, compared with 61 percent of those who are out. And closeted LGBT people are 73-percent more likely to say that they intend to leave their companies within three years than those who are out.

More and more, successful firms are realizing the value of having LGBT-friendly environments -- as the politically and strategically correct thing to do. Such companies have made strides in understanding and addressing the underlying dynamics.

How can LGBT applicants determine whether they are applying to a gay-friendly company?

HRC's Corporate Equality Index (CEI) is a good place to start. When it began in 2002, fewer than 13 companies had fully inclusive LGBT-friendly policies in place. And more importantly, no one knew it. Ten years later, the CEI grades over 850 companies on 40 criteria, and by publishing these ratings, it ensures that companies who don't support LGBT employees are publicly known. The 2012 survey listed 190 companies achieving 100-percent corporate equality, down from 337 in 2011 (due to additional criteria around transgender benefits). However, the CEI is an imperfect buyer's guide and should not be the only resource.

There are still a number of important areas that the CEI doesn't (and can't) cover. For example, there is no mechanism for dealing with corporate political donations or a number of other phenomena that could indicate the work conditions for LGBT people. Consider the fact that while Target had a 100-percent CEI ranking in 2010, the corporation made substantial political donations to anti-LGBT candidates in state elections. HRC threatened to reduce Target from 100 percent "not for the donation itself, but for failing to respond to significant community concerns."

Additionally, many companies point to their rankings on the CEI as proof of their openness. But it is important to dig deeper, and to ask questions about the reality of the work life for LGBT people at these companies. For example, how many of these 100-percent-ranked companies have openly gay senior executives? How many have openly gay CEOs? (Hint: you can count them on one hand.)

The workplace is full of mixed messages for LGBT people:

  • Studies tell us that openness at work is a good thing, but outing oneself on a résumé could jeopardize getting an interview.
  • Companies have LGBT recruiting and outreach, but there is a dearth of out people at the top tier of companies.

Applicants have to calculate these risks and decide how their LGBT identity is going to play in their professional lives.

There is still a long way to go; however, some industries are striding ahead of federal and state policies. This push has led to the development of several reputable LGBT recruitment and career development programs sponsored by a growing collective of companies, including:

  • Out for Undergraduate Business, an annual recruiting conference for LGBT undergraduates. Financial aid makes it accessible to all students.
  • Out and Equal Global Workplace Summit, an annual conference where professionals come together to share their best practices, engage with colleagues from around the world, and strengthen the diversity of workplaces.
  • Out on the Street, an invitation-only event bringing together 200 senior-level employees, including openly gay executives and their allies, to discuss coming out in Wall Street firms.

It is still up to the individual companies to take the information and momentum from these summits and translate them into their company's specific goals. For example, Morgan Stanley has earned a 100-percent CEI score from HRC and the Sustained Leadership Award from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, for its commitment to LGBT diversity. Jeffrey Siminoff, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Morgan Stanley, explains that the firm actively recruits LGBT students at the undergraduate and MBA levels: "The students of course need to show up, and we encourage them to do so by connecting them before and after the conferences and programs with members of our Pride (LGBT) employee networking group and straight allies through our Recruiting Ally Program."

As such companies continue to break new ground, sadly, the legal reality in the U.S. is lagging. The proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) remains stuck in Congress -- where LGBT representatives even lack legal protections for themselves.

However, there may be reason for hope that LGBT Americans will make some progress toward equal workplace protections in the upcoming year. According to Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, "President Obama has the constitutional authority to sign an ENDA Executive Order that would ban workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans who are employed by companies that receive federal contracts." Federal contractors account for almost 22 percent of all jobs in the United States.

Almeida points out that in doing this, "Mr. Obama would be following the lead of prior presidents who signed executive orders banning racial, gender, and religious discrimination by federal contractors. I'm optimistic that Obama will sign an ENDA order in the first part of 2012."

While some corporations have stepped into the void to address the inequities created by legislative inaction, LGBT people in the workplace still have numerous challenges not faced by their straight counterparts. While there are resources for navigating the workplace, there is no one formula for success. But the one thing we do know is that every individual who comes out at work contributes to the ongoing progress.