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Career Services

Coming Out At Work

Russell Kaltschmidt (Editor, gay.com)

Q.   How can I come out at work in a way that honors my individuality and works well within my current organization?

Coming out at work does not necessarily mean that you should walk into a staff meeting tomorrow and make an announcement. While making an announcement or even being outed may seem like efficient options, many people have experienced the benefits of working more authentically when they developed a plan with action steps for coming out. It requires planning and persistence, but the result is usually a more effective approach that can enhance your professional development. Like working out at a gym to look good and feel good, merely showing up isn't enough. Coming out at work may always involve some risk, but you will minimize the potential for an adverse reaction if you consider these steps:
  1. Assess your readiness -- How prepared do you feel to come out at work? It's important that you consider your own level of readiness. If you'd love to bring more of yourself to work, but the very thought of coming out paralyzes you, you may need to spend more time coming out to friends and/or family first. Or, if you're nervous because you don't know how to do it, then the steps listed here may help to get you started. It's your journey so no one can assess your readiness better than you can.
  2. Perform at your best -- Make sure that your performance on the job is solid and that your most recent performance evaluation indicated that you are meeting the requirements of your position. Ideally, it is best to be performing at an above average level, since so many employers today expect more than merely doing your job. If you are not sure about performance expectations and/or evaluations at your organization, then establish goals with your manager and ask for periodic feedback. Coming out without a strong track record can make you feel too vulnerable at work.
  3. Gather supporters -- Who can support you through the process of coming out? This would be a good time to talk with friends and loved ones about your decision and ask for their support. Choose your supporters wisely so that they can be confident with you, not nervous for you. Seeking support from affirming colleagues is also often one of the best ways to avoid going it alone.
  4. Choose a strategy -- How out do you want to be? Some people choose to come out initially only to selected colleagues or just to their manager. Others seek to be out to everybody. You could just start responding more honestly to questions from colleagues about your personal life, or you could take a more proactive approach by informing all of your immediate coworkers. The choice is yours, of course, but many people find it easier to start small.
  5. Conduct a trial run -- Find someone you trust within your organization and try a pilot conversation. The person you choose could be a mentor, human resources representative, gay colleague, or a member of a GLBT employee resource group, if your organization has one. In "Straight Jobs Gay Lives," Annette Friskopp and Sharon Silverstein suggest that many others who have sought to come out at work have found a way to "test the waters." So, you might try coming out first to someone you feel safe with at work to "practice" and get some feedback from him or her on your approach.
  6. Consider the timing -- Survey your work environment to determine if the timing of your "news" will be received fully. In other words, don't choose the busiest time of year or the day after the close of an unprofitable quarter. Timing is not everything, but attention to the question of timing will allow you to set yourself up for success. Remember though that there is no such thing as the perfect time, just the first time.

Finally, a word about expectations. If you hope for the best but do not expect a specific reaction, you will probably be better positioned to respond to whatever happens. People often remark that they were not surprised or that they knew all along. Whether you receive affirmation or silence, it is best not to look to your coworkers or manager for the acceptance that you may never have granted to yourself. So, remember that you are providing important information about you, and that this is potentially an opportunity to educate someone who may never have met someone who is GLBT (that they know of!) One point is clear: They certainly have never met anyone just like you, and now they have the opportunity to know you more fully. 

If you have read this and still can't imagine coming out where you work currently, then perhaps you're just not ready yet. A book titled "OUT In The Workplace" (edited by Richard A. Rasi and Lourdes Rodriquez-Nogues) may be helpful because it describes "the pleasures and perils of coming out on the job." Or, you may need to change employers before you begin working out. In the meantime, you can still develop your on-the-job performance and seek out supporters. Good luck!