Why Gay Workers Decide to Stay in the Closet
By Rachel Feintzeig
At Boston University, Rebecca Farmer was active in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. But when it came time to pursue a career in finance, the 23-year-old decided to stay in the closet.
Through six internships and the start of her first job in a rotational training program at financial-services firm UBS AG, she stayed quiet when conversations turned personal.
"It was fear of being negatively perceived," Ms. Farmer said. "I was more concerned about the people I sit next to, not the company itself."
On the corporate level, employers are more supportive than ever of the LGBT community. The Human Rights Campaign's corporate equality index, which benchmarks major companies on their LGBT-related policies and practices, found that 82% of surveyed employers had LGBT resource groups in 2013, a percentage that has more than doubled since 2002.
But for many young gay professionals, even those who were openly gay on their college campuses, entering the workforce is still a fraught experience. Some keep their sexuality a secret as a way to protect their career aspirations.
Dan Cochran, the chief of staff for UBS Group Americas, acknowledged that people perceived as different on the trading floor are likely to be the brunt of jokes. "It's not a jungle anymore," he said. "But we have a long way to go before you should expect young people starting out in a career to be totally transparent about their sexuality."
Only 7% of LGBT employees 18 to 24 years old are open at work, compared to 32% of 35- to 44-year-olds, according to a coming report from the HRC. Their silence has both a personal and business impact: less satisfied with their jobs, individuals who conceal their sexuality are more likely to leave, according to several surveys, creating a talent issue for employers.
Change is "just not translating to the workplace environment," said Deena Fidas, director of HRC's workplace equality program. Today's youngest workers have come of age amid successful campaigns to legalize same-sex marriage and openly gay professional athletes. But in 29 states, it is still legal to fire someone for being gay.
Tim Stiles, a tax partner with KPMG who sits on diversity and pride boards at the professional services firm, said he is "flummoxed" by the HRC data, which he has discussed with both his leadership groups.
"We're trying to deal with it," Mr. Stiles, 50, said about younger workers choosing to keep their sexuality a secret. The company's prescription for encouraging workers to be open about their sexuality includes highlighting senior LGBT leaders and offering tax benefits for same-sex domestic partners.
Todd Sears, founder of Out on the Street, an LGBT leadership organization, said some recent graduates leverage LGBT recruiting channels--which often include extra interview preparation and leadership training--to find a job but then keep their sexuality private when they're actually at their cubicles. Employers can have great policies on paper, but in the end, "everything comes down to an individual manager," he said.
One 26-year-old, who didn't want to be identified, spent 3 1/2 years at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., where he made sure his supervisors never knew he was gay.
"My choice to not be out was just to make sure that I could make the best name for myself as a new person in my industry based totally on merit, on my work," he said.
A J.P. Morgan spokesman initially declined to comment. After this article appeared online Tuesday, a company spokesman said "we have thousands of out J.P. Morgan Chase employees across all of our businesses and around the world. We celebrate the diversity of our workforce, and receive very positive feedback from our LGBT employees. We're disappointed that one person did not feel comfortable bringing his full self to work."
Attending business school at the University of California, Berkeley, ushered in a new era of openness for him, where he was the president of an LGBT business student organization and organized an LGBT M.B.A. conference. He recently landed his dream job at Samsung Group in South Korea, but said he plans to go back into the closet because of the conservative culture in that country.
"I'm going to go totally back to zero, to nothing," he said. "It absolutely will be difficult."
A Samsung spokesman said the company "embraces and respects the individual rights of its employees" and values " gender and cultural diversity."
Secrecy comes at a cost. Closeted workers are more likely to avoid certain clients or social events and report feeling tired, unhappy and depressed, the HRC has found.
The Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, the professional services firm's hub for research and consulting on diversity issues, has surveyed lesbian, gay and bisexual workers who "cover" at work--playing down their sexuality by dressing differently or adjusting their mannerisms. It found that these individuals are less committed to their organizations. Many don't think they can advance.
Eric Huang, a 31-year-old student at the University of Michigan'sRoss School of Business, worked for nearly a decade in health-care information technology at a Toronto hospital but said he never envisioned a future there. Working alongside middle-aged colleagues who occasionally made homophobia-tinged comments, he said he was often on guard and distracted as he kept his secret.
"You can say, 'I just need to be this way for eight or nine hours a day and then I can go have my normal life,' he said. "But you can't really see yourself having any sort of long-term potential or goals with the organization."
As he looked for a job after business school, Mr. Huang researched companies' nondiscrimination policies and made sure they had LGBT employee groups, to ensure that his transition to the work world didn't mean giving up being open and active in the LGBT community. In August, he will start a new position at PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York and plans to be open about his sexuality at the office.
Ms. Farmer, too, eventually found a way to bring her open college persona to the office. The first person she told was her manager, who is also openly gay.
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at email@example.com
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