An estimated 4.1 percent of the U.S. population is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, reports catalyst.org. If you fall into this group or you work with someone who does, you know that many LGBT workers are not “out” at work. And navigating a work relationship/friendship is tricky when large personal segments of a colleague’s life are off the table for discussion. Yet when you review the blurry legal landscape surrounding workplace discrimination and persistent antigay sentiments, you can better understand the fears and reasons why over half of LGBT workers hide who they are at work.
Workplace discrimination against LGBT people continues—from exclusionary or harassing behavior by co-workers such as verbal abuse and vandalized workspaces to discriminatory employer practices involving unequal pay, promotions or hiring. And there is currently no specific federal law offering protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation. To date, this type of discrimination has fallen under the sex-based discrimination umbrella provided (but not specifically outlined) under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled it as such in 2015, according to a fortune.com article. And since the EEOC began tracking this data in 2013, there has been an increase in the number of LGBT-based sex discrimination charges—from 808 in 2013 to 1,768 in 2016.
But there’s an ongoing debate on the scope of Title VII, with the Department of Justice now pulling back—taking the stance that these workplace protections should be established through Congress, not the courts. State protection is also sketchy. The article notes that as of April 2017, only 22 states and the District of Columbia have laws specifically banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Many companies are stepping up however. The same catalyst.org article notes: “As of 2016, 92% of Fortune 500 companies have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation (grown from only 4% in 1996, as reported by outandequal.org). 82% have non-discrimination policies that include gender identity.”
Relying on this patchwork of legal protections from discrimination forces many LGBT employees to feel the need to keep their sexual orientation and gender identity hidden. There is ongoing fear that being themselves could result in lost connections with co-workers or worse—jeopardized opportunities for promotions and raises.
Anti-LGBT bias is present in nearly every workplace. In fact, a study by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation finds that “70% of non-LGBT workers agree with the statement ‘it is unprofessional’ to talk about sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace.” Talented LGBT employees leave jobs because they don’t feel welcomed, reports Karina Baksh for huffingtonpost.com.
Gay and lesbian people have experienced a long history of discrimination in the workplace and many remain closeted there. The crazy-quilt of laws makes silence understandable. Creating an inclusive work environment, respecting that silence and adopting non-discrimination policies can help your talented LGBT employees thrive.