I’ve always been out in the workplace but that puts me in only half the LGBT work population. The other half remains closeted, and the price is high for those employees and their employers.
This post was written with Karen Sumberg, a senior vice president at the Center for Work-Life Policy.
Erika Karp vividly remembers the secrecy and subterfuge that colored every workday before she told her colleagues that she was a lesbian. “You have to devote a huge amount of psychic energy to being closeted — changing pronouns, switching names. I did that for years,” Karp recalls, all the while knowing that coming out could jeopardize her career in investment banking. “It was torture.”
According to a 2009 Human Rights Campaign, more than half of LGBT employees are not “out” of the closet. Being in the closet is not just painful to individuals; it’s also an enormous talent drain for their employers. By not promoting and supporting an inclusive workplace, organizations whose workplace environments cause LGBTs to stay in the closet risk alienating and ultimately losing a critical tranche of talent. A new study by the Center for Work-Life Policy published in the July/August 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review quantifies just how high the cost is for both closeted LGBTs and their employers.
Nearly one-third (31%) of LGBTs surveyed in the study live double lives — out to their family or friends, but closeted on the job. Being forced to stay in the closet — or feeling penalized by a disapproving or hostile environment once they do come out — puts their career ambitions at war with their ability to put their whole self behind those ambitions. Like Karp, LGBT employees expend an enormous amount of energy simply keeping their stories straight, leaving less for focusing on the work they need to do to advance. Forced to lie about their private lives, they are excluded from the collegiate banter about weekend outings and personal interests that forges bonds in the workplace.