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HUMAN RESOURCES

Coming out at work

“He’s talented but anti-social,” the business owner said of his accounting manager when he called. “At first, we thought the problem was that “Gene” was a finance type and kind of a geek. But there have been odd comments from others over the last two years,” explained the business owner as he asked for my help as an HR consultant.

“The latest problem is he doesn’t want to attend our Christmas party. We’ve asked all the managers to make an appearance. We’d like to promote him to CFO and don’t want someone unstable in that position. Could you interview him and give us a read?”

Gene sent me a Zoom link for the interview and was tight-lipped, so I invited him to meet off-site. Before we met, I asked the owner for the comments he could remember. They included “a stickler for details,” “hard to get to know” and “gets weird when you ask him about his family.” The last one gave me a clue.

When we met, both masked, I asked about his background, career goals, and thoughts about the company. I asked him about the Christmas party, and he explained his COVID concerns. “Makes sense,” I said, “For you and your company. Any other reasons?” I’ve often found interviewees have a practiced answer to the first question about any topic. He blinked.

When we talked about his thoughts about the potential promotion, I brought up the Girdwood strategic planning off-site for senior executives planned for January in Girdwood. He was all in favor, until I asked about the planned dinner for managers and spouses. “After working together all day,” he said, “I’d like the chance to get some downhill skiing in instead of the dinner.”

“Makes sense,” I said. “Any other reason?”

After he studied me for a full minute, he asked, “Do you have an agenda here?”

“Are you worried you’ll fit in?” I asked.

That’s when the interview changed. Gene said, “I work with a fairly conservative group of people. Maybe you’ll have advice for me.” Like others who hesitate to “come out” at work, Gene worried how the other managers would handle learning he was gay. He didn’t want to torpedo his chance of promotion, but feared they’d have a trust issue if he didn’t reveal his sexual orientation” and it came out later.

“You’re right, the senior managers may have biases that impact you,” I said. “But your silence already costs you. You’re considered anti-social. If you want to stay undercover, you’ll have to come up with more effective ways to dodge personal questions.”

“Do you have to out me?”

“Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2020 ruling making against discrimination against employees because of their sexual orientation illegal, I won’t be mentioning it. Because if I do, and you experience retaliation, I’ll have created a problem for your employer.”

“Meanwhile, keeping your personal life hidden exacts a toll on you. You remain awkwardly silent when others talk about their home lives. This is a small town, and you fear exposure.”

“What will you do when this issue comes up with an employee in your company and other senior managers ask your opinion, or make derogatory comments about the employee’s orientation? This may happen. Although only 7.1% of Americans currently identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer, the percentage increases to 20.8 for generation Z.” https://news.gallup.com/topic/lgbt.aspx

Gene decided to come out to the business owner and others on the senior team one at a time, so he could judge reactions and answer questions.

I called the business owner and said, “Gene plans to have a conversation with you. He’s not unstable.”

When I asked Gene, “How did it go?” he said, “The owner said, ‘that explains a lot.’ Some were clearly uncomfortable, but others told me they had a son or daughter who was gay. It’s like a huge weight has lifted.”


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