Deb Price | A Nice Place to Work

The young worker sheepishly asked my friend, a senior manager, if they could talk privately.

“How did you come out to your parents?” asked the young worker, confiding that she’s gay and eager to break free of the closet.

That question sparked a touchingly personal conversation. My friend described being frank with her parents and their loving response. She explained that coming out is an invitation to a closer relationship. Being out, she continued, is a sign of self-respect.

Feeling supported, the young worker opened up more, saying she doesn’t feel comfortable at the office. Turns out someone in her small section had grumbled about gay married couples.

One hurtful remark. One year ago. But that was enough to make the young worker afraid to risk being open about her life in the normal give-and-take that builds healthy work relationships.

My friend assured her that the section supervisor would gently remind the co-worker that hurtful remarks aren’t acceptable. Soon, the young woman came to work beaming: She had told her parents — their reaction was wonderful.

This heartwarming saga is a reminder of the good that can come from being out at the office — either as gay or gay friendly. Being open turns you into a valuable resource for everyone in your workplace.

An office nondiscrimination policy covering sexual orientation and gender identity only goes so far: Fragile people have to feel the rules will be backed up.

Sadly, hurtful comments and other behavior that makes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people uncomfortable are common in workplaces, a powerful report by the Human Rights Campaign found. But most LGBT people — 67 percent — don’t tell a supervisor or official in human resources.

“Degrees of Equality,” based on extensive surveys and focus groups, found two-thirds of LGBT workers hear anti-gay comments and jokes at the office “at least once in a while.”

Over half of LGBT workers — 51 percent — are closeted to most people at work. Only 27 percent are open to everyone at work, while 28 percent are totally closeted.

While work is, well, work, we all know that interacting smoothly with others is a big part of our jobs.

Most LGBT workers don’t feel very comfortable chiming in when office talk gets personal. But nearly 90 percent say at least once a week workplace conversations involve social lives; 80 percent say co-workers talk about spouses; and 50 percent say sex gets mentioned.

One of the most disheartening findings: 51 percent say employers rarely or never use “partner” or “significant other” along with “spouse” in office communications.

Why are so many LGBT workers closeted? Fear — of losing connections (39 percent), of losing advancement opportunities (28 percent), of being injured (13 percent) and of a repeat of a past humiliation (11 percent).

At the office, gay men are more likely than lesbians to be totally closeted (24 percent versus 12 percent). White workers are more likely to be totally out (29 percent) than Latinos (18 percent) or African Americans (25 percent). Just 32 percent of single LGBT workers are completely out versus 56 percent of coupled workers. And a smaller portion of workers under age 25 are totally out than their elders (20 percent versus 5 percent)

What helps? Gay workplace groups and openly gay senior managers.

Creating a welcoming workplace by hosting a gay employee group halves the number of totally closeted workers — from 29 percent to 14 percent. As for openly gay senior managers, 47 percent of LGBT workers were out to everyone at such friendly worksites versus 18 percent elsewhere.

Looking for magic seeds to grow a work environment where everyone feels valued? Just be totally out, as gay or gay friendly. You never know who might need to knock on your office door.

Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.

Copyright 2010