When Office Prejudice Prevents Workplace Pride

Three quarters of LGBTIQ+ employees in Australia claim it is important to be "out" in the workplace, yet only one third are.

By Jamila Rizvi


Three quarters of LGBTIQ+ employees in Australia claim it is important to be "out" in the workplace, yet only one third are.

By Jamila Rizvi

Do you bring your whole self to work? Most of us have a ‘work’ persona. A version of ourselves that’s a little different to the one who at exists at home; the one who sometimes eats cereal for dinner and talks to the cat. Our work selves tend to be slightly muted and somewhat more stoic in the face of criticism. They take a business-like approach to problem solving and are concerned with outcomes over emotions.

In crafting this work persona, we make choices about what information to share with our colleagues and what to withhold. Generally, this choice is freely made. It’s made because of a desire to keep elements of our private life, well, private. But what happens when you don’t choose to keep parts of yourself private but are made to feel like you have no choice other than to do so?

Research released today by the Diversity Council of Australia revealed that while three quarters of LGTBIQ+ people felt it was important for their colleagues to know, less than a third were out to everyone they worked with. Where an employee possessed more than one LGBTIQ+ attribute (for example those who were lesbian and trans) they were less likely again to be out at work.

Post-marriage equality Australia is quick to assume that we’ve “fixed” discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people. This new data proves that could not be further from the truth. Most of the queer community still have circumstances in their working lives, where they cannot be their whole selves. This country may have legislated around one, albeit highly significant, barrier to equality but there is still a very long path ahead to genuine acceptance.

LGBTIQ+ employees who are not out at work are 45% less likely to be satisfied with their job.

Many reports from participants in the Diversity Council’s survey speak about the labour involved in concealment. The monumental psychological, emotional and mental effort involved in hiding a fundamental part of who you are, is enormous. It involves spinning a complex web of mistruths, omissions and fudging the facts as members of the queer community mask their identity by avoiding mannerisms that are prone to a stereotype or not speaking openly about their partner or children.

Head of Technology, Shared Services and Utilities at QBE, Sharon Dickson said inclusive workplaces are crucial to the “psychological safety of every employee”. “I know people who are not out with their families but are out with their friends and they may or may not be out at work. The effort in concealing, depending on what group you’re with and what you can and can’t say, is exhausting. You constantly scan the environment all the time, censoring yourself and there’s a skill you develop in being able to do that.”

It feels distasteful that we have to make the business case around this. After all, we’re addressing behaviours that go to our common humanity. Nonetheless, the Diversity Council’s report mounts compelling evidence for organisations to take inclusion seriously because it effects their bottom line. The result of this constant and heavy psychological burden on LGBTIQ+ employees is a lack of workplace engagement and reduced productivity. However, by building a more inclusive environment, businesses can improve retention and improve organisational commitment.

This kind of inclusive culture doesn’t happen by accident. Lisa Annese from the Diversity Council warns “we always default to how the workplace was designed in the industrial era; where women and children didn’t matter, where you weren’t allowed to be gay, where you didn’t live past 50. We need to deliberately create initiatives that disrupt the usual pattern of behaviour, so people can be themselves at work”.

LGBTIQ+ employees who are at highly inclusive organisations are 47% more likely to work beyond the bottom line of their roles than those in non-inclusive cultures.

Annese says the work of inclusion begins with policies and symbols because in the absence of these major organisational shifts, individuals’ identities become invisible. Initiatives like pride days, requirements around inclusive language in formal documents and clear, public policies around harassment are all part of this. The next step is more complex because it involves cultural change, something that has to be embraced from the ground up and not just enforced from the top down.

For her part, Sharon Dickson claims the role of straight allies is absolutely critical. “They can show the visibility within each little business unit, within a micro-culture” she explains. In a larger organisation there are more likely to be many and more senior staff who are LGBTIQ+ to act as role models and influence culture. However, in smaller workplaces and teams, that’s where aggressions and discrimination can flourish. “Culture can even be different between different floors of a building,” Dickson says. “The vibe of each floor can be different. That’s why allies matter”.

Illustration: Patti Andrews