Just going to work every day can present new experiences, challenges and opportunities you might never otherwise encounter. For instance, one morning you might walk into the office and hear a coworker announcing that she is LGBT.
Depending on your overall level of awareness, you might vaguely recognize the term LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) or you might be intimately familiar with what it means.
In either case, since to date few company protocol manuals cover workplace situations such as this one, it can be helpful to know what to do when your colleague comes out.
Be a Straight Ally
If at all possible, the best response is to step up as your coworker’s straight ally. The term “straight ally” refers to a straight person who is supportive of LGBT rights and the individuals who identify as LGBT.
Unless your workplace is highly unusual, you can expect that not everyone will have a positive reaction to a coworker’s decision to come out. But you can make your support clear as a pathway to identifying others in your office who are also straight allies and can help your coworker in their transition.
Know What Not To Say
Knowing what to avoid saying is every bit as critical as knowing what to say to a coworker who has newly come out as LGBT.
Here are some helpful tips of what not to say:
- Don’t ask about intimate romantic details.
- Don’t inquire about gender reassignment surgery.
- Don’t use any terminology that could be taken in a negative way.
- Don’t offer your advice.
- Don’t say you already knew it (even if you did).
- Don’t ask what you should call them.
These responses can shame, belittle or anger a coworker, as they might anyone of any orientation who opened up and shared something deeply personal.
It is also worth remembering that you will be seeing this person regularly at work for the foreseeable future and perhaps elsewhere during your careers as well, so the connection should be protected as the professional association that it is.
Know What To Say
In the same way that there are certain responses that might be considered unwelcome, prying or downright rude, so too are there the responses any newly-out LGBT person might hope and wish to hear from his coworkers.
Here are some helpful tips about what to say:
- Do offer words of gratitude for entrusting you with this personal news.
- Do ask if others in the office know or if the person wishes you to keep what they have told you in confidence.
- Do do your own research about more sensitive questions not suitable for asking your colleague about.
- Do ask appropriate, kind and respectful questions if you have them and think the other person would be open to answering.
- Do carry on with “business as usual” in terms of how you treat and interact with that other person.
For Employers: Understand Potential Legal Ramifications
If you are an employer and a member of your staff comes out as LGBT, how you respond will have everything to do with how the workplace as a whole responds. You can and should set the tone, and this is important on a legal as well as social and worker productivity level.
Workplace bullying and harassment is on the rise in general, and it can be particularly damaging when done in relation to a worker’s personal gender and/or intimate preference.
Only half of United States workplaces to date have added language to their company personnel policy manuals stating that bullying would not be tolerated. Even worse, it is still legal in 32 states to fire someone who identifies as transgender (which some LGBT people also do).
So taking any stance other than one of zero tolerance and 100 percent support of LGBT workers can open the door to devastating effect for that worker and for your company. You may also want to have a private word with the newly out employee and let them know your door is open if they experience any questions or interactions related to their announcement that feel bullying or harassing.
Finally, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) recommends that if there is presently no language in your company’s personnel workplace manual outlining a zero tolerance bullying or harassment policy or specifying health insurance benefits for same-gender workers and partners, now is the time to get to work on that.
Give Your Coworker Time to Adjust
For a coworker who has been covering up or hiding (or simply not expressing) their real self in the workplace for a period of time, it can feel both exhilarating and terrifying to finally take that step.
There is a huge positive benefit to supporting a newly out coworker, with is that your coworker will feel freer to fully engage at work, share ideas, be productive and creative and connect with others. But in the interim, allow your coworker to take the lead and set the pace on any further references to the announcement.