Workplace Visibility: Hindsight & Foresight

In 1999, when I began talking to companies about issues of sexual orientation, the focus was on visibility. My organization’s efforts were designed to promote the visibility of gay men and lesbians, to maximize their workplace effectiveness, and to create a hospitable work environment.

Sexual orientation, then as now, was self-disclosed. It made sense that gay people were not willing to trade the relative safety of the closet for a hostile work environment. Smart companies, realizing this, embarked on the implementation of policies and procedures to ensure fairness and inclusion. They also understood that from a bottom-line perspective, it was not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.

In those early days, my most valuable tool for change was a self-styled out-ometer. The product of my imagination, it was a fictitious measurement device—part thermometer, part yardstick––that helped companies determine their degree of outness.

Though it wasn’t “real,” the out-ometer worked amazingly well––it broke the ice, put people at ease, and prompted what, at the time, was a difficult conversation. The ensuing dialogue about the coming out process and its implications for both the company and the people it employed gradually began to effect change.

One result is that now there are real measurement devices—internal employee surveys, rankings on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index, and extensive market research to capitalize on LGBT buying power, currently estimated at $641 billion.

Despite the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in the military and the continuing struggle for marriage equality, our world is a different place. In many ways, the private sector has led the way: 82 percent of Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation in their written equal-employment opportunity or primary nondiscrimination policy, 46 percent offer domestic partner benefits––up from just four 4 percent in 1995––and companies nationwide vie for Out&Equal Workplace Equality Awards, presented by the LGBT workplace fairness group founded in 1998 and based in San Francisco. In 2005, the group’s awards were presented at an event attended by more than 1,000 people from 223 companies and organizations.

On a personal level, daily office conversations among gay and non-gay colleagues, in car pools and at coffee breaks, regularly include reports on partners, families, weekend activities, church and volunteer work – topics which were largely off-limits just a few years ago.

What may have begun in the executive suite as support for strategic change through policies and procedures grew into real culture and attitude change fueled by the grass roots momentum of employee resource groups (ERG’s.) ”It’s the snowball effect,” explains the dynamic ERG leader of a major New York financial institution. “It prompts more and more people to become visible.”

The sociologists tell us that the individual is the enemy of the stereotype. Every time one of us comes out––in the workplace or anyplace––we reinforce this truth. The “gap in the rap”––between what the policies say and how people actually treat each other––narrows with each courageous conversation. And that is why, all these years later and notwithstanding our gains, it is still important to come out.

It’s been said that what ultimately forces change is human beings seeing fellow human beings act from a place of deep conviction. This is what happened in the corporate workplace and it is a laudable model for the larger world.

So if you are out and visible, take credit where it is due and then encourage others to follow your lead.

If you are not out and wish you were, make a strategic plan for yourself. Set a goal to come out to someone––at home or at work––before this year gets too much older. Borrow my out-ometer and get ready for change!

And speaking of change, these days my organization works with companies not only to promote LGBT visibility, but also to leverage that visibility for real bottom-line benefit. As a result of heightened workplace visibility, I also coach individuals who, regardless of their sexual orientation, seek greater fulfillment in what they do by being more of who they really are.

Of course I keep the out-ometer handy, just in case, but I can see the day coming when it will have outlived its usefulness and I can stash it where it belongs—in the back of my closet.

Sarah L. Holland is the president of the Visibility Project, a national organization that helps corporations and professional firms address issues of sexual orientation in the workplace.

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