Photo: Flickr/Guillaume Paumier
Corporations have made great progress over the past decade creating more-welcoming environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) employees. Today 85% of Fortune 500 companies have protective policies that address sexual orientation—up from 51% in 2000. Nonetheless, surveys show that many LGBT employees still view their sexual orientation as a hindrance on the job: Fully 48% of LGBT respondents report remaining “closeted” at work.Our research suggests that many are hiding needlessly and that “out” workers may stand a better chance than closeted workers of being promoted (although there are still relatively few openly gay senior executives). This appears to be the case largely because closeted workers suffer anxiety about how colleagues and managers might judge them and expend enormous effort concealing their orientation, which leaves them less energy for actual work. Further, LGBT workers who feel forced to lie about their identity and relationships typically don’t engage in collegial banter about such things as weekend activities—banter that forges important workplace bonds. Some 42% of closeted employees said they felt isolated at work, versus only 24% of openly LGBT employees. These factors may explain why 52% of all closeted employees, but just 36% of out employees, believe their careers have stalled. The disparity is greatest among midlevel employees, with 70% of closeted middle managers reporting that they feel stalled, versus 51% of openly LGBT middle managers.
Todd Sears has experienced both scenarios. By the time he graduated from Duke, everyone—his family, fraternity brothers, and classmates—knew that he was gay. But during his first week at a New York investment bank, he heard his boss call a team member a “faggot” and decided to keep his orientation a secret. Leading a double life took a toll. “It created a lot of stress and exhaustion,” Sears says. “There are so many things you can’t say or that you have to lie about, and you’re constantly on guard.” He quit after a year to take a job at a boutique investment firm—where he had come out during the interview process. His new employer turned his orientation into an advantage: Sears was a crucial asset when the firm pitched its services, successfully, to a gay-oriented media company. He later went to work at Merrill Lynch, where he founded the first team on Wall Street to focus on financial planning for the LGBT community.
Attitudes toward sexual orientation remain a complicated issue, and personal prejudices are still strong: According to a recent survey, 48% of heterosexual Americans oppose gay marriage, and 52% of straight men think LGBT workers should “keep their lifestyle choices to themselves.” For talent managers, however, creating a climate that’s hospitable to all workers should be a key goal—for worker morale, to boost retention, and because there are larger business issues involved. Recent estimates put LGBT buying power at more than $700 billion in the U.S. alone. Employers who are known for progressive attitudes toward this demographic have a better chance of winning its loyalty and its business.
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