Coming out and fitting in: LGBTQ+ authenticity at work

Kathleen O’Connor on asking the right questions and why leaders must take responsibility for creating inclusive workplace environments


This month, organisations around the world are once again loudly celebrating Pride Month. Expect rainbow-adorned logos, pithy public statements and even limited-edition products. But what is the reality of being ‘out’ at work in 2021? And whose responsibility is it to ensure workplaces are welcoming to people of all sexualities and genders?

We spoke to Kathleen O’Connor, Clinical Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, about why being able to bring our authentic selves to work is so important and what business leaders should be doing to support this. Professor O’Connor is an authority on negotiation, conflict management and collaboration. Her most recent research focuses on the influences of fear and serendipity on key decisions made by women throughout their careers.

Why is authenticity so important?

Professor O’Connor explains, “We already know that when employees feel valued as individuals, they are more motivated, more productive and - most importantly - happier. We should all be trying to find organisations where we can flourish, but for LGBTQ+ people, this is doubly important. It’s not just a question of fitting in – people need to know that they will be safe, supported and not face abuse or discrimination.”

She believes that the repercussions of feeling forced to hide who we are can be devastating. “We spend so much of our lives at work. If a person is also having to remain constantly vigilant, always doublechecking themselves, it takes up an enormous amount of mental energy. Being overly preoccupied with how we present ourselves isn’t just anxiety-inducing, it’s exhausting. This is mental energy people could be using to solve problems or plan their career.”

Of course, many people, LGBTQ+ or otherwise, are happy to keep their work and home lives separate. “Not everybody wants these kinds of relationships with their colleagues, and that’s fine. Deciding how much of ourselves we bring to work is a deeply personal decision – the best approach will be different for everyone.”

“Reach out to people who’ve been there before – how was their experience? Let this guide your actions”

The benefits of being out at work

Taking the first step towards coming out at work can be daunting, but there are many advantages to being more open.

“I had a previous student who was out everywhere but work,” Professor O’Connor recalls. “One day he decided he wanted the same level of openness with his colleagues that he had with his peers across the School.” This didn’t lead to a defining ‘coming out’ moment, but the student did begin to talk more about his personal life. “If someone asked him what he did at the weekend, he might mention going to the tennis with his husband. Within a couple of weeks, he had several of his direct reports tell him that they felt closer to him, and more able to approach him with a problem or suggestion. By building a better, more open, rapport he was able to build trust with colleagues.”

This is just one example of how authentic leaders can inspire their staff, but Professor O’Connor thinks it’s a story we’ll see playing out time and time again. “If you want to come out, and you’re in a position where you won’t suffer for it, there are many, many benefits.”

How to spot an accepting organisation

If someone is considering coming out to their colleagues, or is perhaps even contemplating their next career move, what should they be looking out for? How can they tell if an organisation will be a safe space?

Professor O’Connor believes it’s all about asking the right questions and not being afraid to dig a little deeper into an organisation’s public-facing persona. “Look at any company’s website in 2021, what does it say? They are results driven. They're all about integrity. They prize diversity. There’s a set of about two dozen core words that everyone uses. Of course, that’s not to say that these organisations don’t prize diversity, but it’s important to get a sense of how those values are put into action.”

Asking who holds the power, and how that power is wielded, is key. What does it take to get promoted? What does a firing offence look like? More importantly, are there LGBTQ+ people and allies in positions of power? Or junior staff who are out and thriving?

Looking at employee resources is also instructive. Is there an LGBTQ+ network? Focus on actions, not words. If an organisation has invested in initiatives like a mentoring system for LGBTQ+ employees, where they can connect with more senior staff, it’s a good sign they truly value inclusivity.

Personal networks are invaluable

Of course, these might not be the first questions you want to ask in a job interview. Not to mention, how do we know when organisations are telling the truth?

Professor O’Connor’s advice is to be resourceful and lean on personal relationships. “This is why having a supportive network of other LGBTQ+ people and allies is so key. They can offer practical information, as well as personal support. Reach out to people who’ve been there before – how was their experience? Let this guide your actions.”

If you don’t have a personal network to rely on, resources like Glassdoor can be extremely useful. What do former staff have to say about the culture? Do any patterns emerge in the reviews?

“It should never require extreme courage to show up at work and be the person that you are”

Ultimately, the onus is always on the organisation

Taking the above steps is sensible, but Professor O’Connor also believes that the responsibility for making these conversations possible lies with leaders. “My personal philosophy is that it shouldn't take extraordinary amounts of courage to simply operate within an organisation. It should never require extreme courage to show up at work and be the person you are. It's incumbent upon the organisation to create an atmosphere and environment where people don’t need to be brave to be who they are. Let your employees use that courage for something else.”

To make this possible, leaders need to hold themselves to account. “Business leaders need to be proactively asking themselves how they can better support all employees. This also shouldn’t be exceptional, it’s part of their job. What are you really doing to live up to that equality pledge? What practical steps are you taking to create an inclusive environment? Are you modelling the right behaviours for more junior managers?”

It’s essential that managers are honest about gaps in their knowledge. “Language is constantly evolving, of course people are going to have questions about things like pronouns. There’s no shame in this, but we must realise that it’s not LGBTQ+ people’s responsibility to educate us.” In the same way that leaders happily ask for training in areas like finance and management skills, they should be asking for resources on how to support LGBTQ+ staff.

“There are so many organisations out there where you will be valued, and you owe it to yourself to find a place where you can be the person you are”

Why accept anything less than a straight person would?

How should people manage working in an organisation where they feel unable to be themselves?

Professor O’Connor acknowledges being able to freely switch jobs is a privilege, but she also believes we shouldn’t accept anything less than total inclusivity. “If you’re not welcome and accepted, leave. Just leave. There are so many organisations out there where you will be valued, and you owe it to yourself to find a place where you can be the person you are.”

After all, this isn’t simply a workplace issue. “Really there’s no such thing as an ‘organisation’. What does that actually mean? It’s just a collection of people. It’s up to us to decide what kind of people we are willing to accept in our lives, professional or otherwise. Find your people and you’ll thrive.”


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