A Guide to Coming Out at Work (Again, and Again)

iStock_000007266707XSmallThis article is part of our June Pride series – check back all month as we explore what it means to be an LGBT woman or ally in the professional workplace.

By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

Coming out at work is not a one-time event that’s over and done with in a single revelation. For LGBT professionals, it’s something that must be addressed over and over again to new coworkers, clients, and vendors.

As Marion S. Regnier, a Senior Associate at PwC, told The Glass Hammer in 2012, “Working in consulting you meet and work with new people all the time so coming out is a continuous process. I don’t think there is a one-time solution.”

This is just one of the many challenges of coming out in the office that led us to prepare the following Guide to Coming Out at Work as part of our Pride Month coverage. For advice and expertise, we turned to Regnier to address some of the complex challenges that LGBT professionals face in the workplace around the coming out process, and how to successfully navigate them.

Choosing Your Moment

The most challenging thing about coming out at work can be the timing of your announcement, according to Regnier. While she notes that there is no secret recipe with regards to the timing of coming out that works for everyone and every client situation, she believes the best timing should be based on your personal situation. “If you’re married and have responsibilities at home, it may be easier to share early in the working relationship as it may impact your schedule,” she says. “If you’re single, dating, or if the subject has never come up, there may not be a reason to even mention it until the subject is brought up.”

She notes that much like coming out in your personal life, you can end up waiting forever for the perfect moment and spend countless hours wondering if it’s too early or too late in your career to do so. “I think it is important to place yourself in the mindset of, ‘OK, I’m going to come out’ and take action!” says Regnier. “To me it’s a pledge to yourself and your integrity.”

One reason that Regnier advises this is that she believes that coming out at work can bring many advantages. The most rewarding aspect for her has been an incredible feeling of bringing her whole self to work. “Coming out allows you to be more focused, as you stop wasting energy wondering about people who know, don’t know, may know, are wondering…what a distraction!” she says. “Coming out allows you to focus on your work, become more trusting and trustworthy, and build stronger relationships.”

Building Rapport

A related advantage of coming out is that it allows LGBT professionals to finally share their weekend plans at the office on Monday morning, just like any other colleague does around them. “You could think people do not care about what you do on weekends!” says Regnier. “But I believe it is part of building rapport with others, and in all honesty, everybody I know talks about their family, their kids, their travels …so why shouldn’t you?”

Regnier adds that another rewarding aspect of coming out has been the expansion of her professional and personal network through diversity initiatives and participation in external professional Pride organizations. For example, she has served as the co-chair of the GLBT Circle for PwC’s New York metro area. “Being an out individual working for such a supportive firm as PwC has allowed me to meet and develop relationships with internal and external leaders that I would not easily have access to otherwise.”

One Message, Many Deliveries

In professional services firms, people move within their organization frequently, work on various projects with diverse teams, and interact with clients from a wide range of locations, whether states or countries. As a member of a professional services firm, Regnier has had to come out many times to different team members and clients.

In her experience, she has found one of the main challenges about coming out frequently in the workplace to be the inability to predict the other person’s response – especially with people you just started working with – since you know little about their personal beliefs about LGBT people.

Her advice is to share what you feel most comfortable with, and trust your instincts. “Feeling confident and comfortable with yourself will be your best asset to inspire trust, and limit any unwanted reaction,” says Regnier. “Coming out in the workplace is never over, but I believe it does get easier over time.”

Safety First

Although a strong advocate for the benefits of coming out at work, Regnier expresses a note of caution for doing so in certain circumstances that might jeopardize your safety or could lead to legal implications. For example, she recommends using your best judgment about coming out when working abroad.

“Many countries still condemn homosexuality, so I would definitely conduct some due diligence and consult with HR before considering a position in such a country,” says Regnier.

Another situation that requires some reflection is when starting a business relationship with a client that you know does not think favorably of LGBT individuals. “If you believe that coming out may impact the outcome of your business discussions, my advice would be to think about your comfort level as an out LGBT individual,” says Regnier. “Reflect on what kind of LGBT person you feel comfortable being, and whether you really want to conduct business with that person anyway.” Regnier adds that while you must always do what feels right for you personally, you may not want to compromise your integrity by working with a homophobic person. “You can always find more business, but to me nothing is as important as being true to who you are,” she says.

Strategic Decisions

Regnier offers the following general recommendations about the best strategies for coming out at work that may help make the process go more smoothly:

  • Take the early advantage. Regnier personally believes it is most productive to come out early in your career, because it may help you avoid it becoming a subject of distraction later on, or at a crucial time. “Being true to who you are will help people trust you from the start, and you will develop more meaningful relationships than leaving people wondering why you’ve been hiding it for all these years. (‘Did she not trust me?’) That being said, do what feels right to you, when you feel ready. Everybody’s experiences and level of comfort are different; being open and reaching out to people around you will help you make the right choices.”
  • Use resource groups. Many larger companies that are LGBT-progressive either have formed – or are in the process of forming – an LGBT Employee Resource Group (ERG). Regnier shares that in her experience, these groups have been a great asset to the coming out process. “Some firms host panel discussions about coming out in the workplace, webcasts, and have material available to guide you,” she says. “It is a fantastic avenue to discuss your challenges with colleagues who faced similar situations in the same corporate culture.” Regnier adds that the advantages of using a resource group include finding mentors or mentees who offer a different perspective and decision-making advice, and straight allies who can remind you that you do fit in and are valued and respected for the quality of your work regardless of your sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Go online. Regnier suggests looking on the Internet for professional LGBT events in your local metro area hosted by other firms or organizations – such as the Interbank Roundtable Committee (IRC), the Financial Services Industry Exchange (FSIX), and Dot429. “You would be surprised to see the number of firms and organizations hosting events about the topic once you start looking,” she says.

Industry Evolution

If it’s difficult for professionals across industries to come out, it may be particularly challenging for financial services professionals and executives. Regnier notes that the financial services industry is still associated with a conservative mindset and values with regards to LGBT people.

“It remains a very tough and competitive environment to be successful and reach executive level positions (especially for women), which leaves little room for error along the way,” explains Regnier. “I believe this deters a lot of people from coming out, thinking for example that it can be a distraction to others when evaluating performance or considering them for particular positions.” According to Regnier, there is a common fear in many industries that coming out could negatively impact career progression, but may be harder to overcome in predominantly straight and male-dominated fields.

However, there is a bright spot: Regnier believes that the financial services industry, its workforce, and its leaders are continuously evolving on the issue. She points out that several leaders over the past few years have come out as straight allies publicly to support equality in the workplace and beyond, such as Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein speaking out for marriage equality earlier this year. Organizations such as the IRC – an organization whose membership consists of representatives from LGBT Employee Resource Groups of financial services organizations – are also making great strides sharing best practices on workplace inclusion, engaging senior management and straight allies, and promoting networking across the industry.

“Organizations like the IRC are enabling the continuous shift and openness from the industry, constantly pushing the limits of workplace equality for LGBT employees (domestic partnership benefits, tax equalization, signing the amicus brief challenging DOMA or joining the Business Coalition for the Uniting American Families Act),” says Regnier. “I believe that LGBT individuals have a bright future in the financial services industry.”