Coming out at work has always been something of a sensitive subject. But as you probably know, last week this often overlooked issue moved into the headlines and, at last, into our collective consciousness.
The cover story in question, of course, is Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, came out to the world in a BusinessWeek article with the apropos title, “I’m Proud to Be Gay.” Which is a pretty powerful statement, considering the source.
If you’re not gay, or happen to live in a progressive city, or even have liberal leanings, you’re unlikely to have thought that Cook’s big announcement was really big news to begin with. Most of you probably just saw the story appear in your news feed or as a trending topic and thought something along the lines of:
“Good for him. Being gay is pretty normal, and living life out of the closet seems like it’s getting pretty easy.”
Which, in some ways, is an encouraging sign of how far our society – and mindsets – have come in what amounts to the most important unresolved Civil Rights issue of our era.
But even in left-leaning bastions like the Bay Area or Boston, the world of business has unfortunately lagged behind mainstream society. Lost in the headlines and noise surrounding Cook’s announcement is a surprising, sad fact: Tim Cook is the only openly gay CEO in the Fortune 500.
This means, until just last week, there were a grand total of zero. Which gives you a sense not only of the true magnitude (and fortitude) Cook exhibited in coming out, but also how far we’ve still got to go in the fight for equality. The Fortune 500 not only represents a list of the world’s most profitable companies, but also, the most influential, setting something of the standard for success as a business benchmark.
Come on. Out of those companies’ 500 CEOs, there’s only 1 gay guy in the bunch? That just doesn’t seem right to me.
Then I realize that, as much progress as we’ve made, the workplace is still one of the final frontiers; the office remains one of the only places where it’s still not 100% safe for gay people to come out. I can’t help but assume, statistically speaking, that list of Fortune 500 CEOs includes at least a few other smart, savvy senior leaders who happen to be gay, but for now, they’re staying silent about their sexuality.
That must be one crowded closet in the C-Suite at many major multinationals.
Out at Work: Shattering the Other Glass Ceiling
It’s difficult for me to believe that anyone who’s able to rise to the top of the cut-throat, competitive world of corporate America – from graduating from blue chip business schools to building billions of dollars in assets all around the world – can remain trapped by the lingering misperceptions and societal conditioning that have created a concept of what a “gay person” should be, what a gay person “can’t do.”
It’s a lengthy list – and it’s all BS, as Tim Cook’s announcement pretty much definitively proves. I sincerely hope that having Tim Cook playing for the gay team means that a few more minds are changed about issues involving equality, particularly the fact that gay people are equally qualified to achieve the same success as straight ones.
Of course, you can’t totally eradicate ignorance, bigotry or homophobia – those biases are likely to remain entrenched at many employers – and many of their employees, too. These managers and coworkers who explicitly or implicitly treat homosexuality as a barrier for success continue to reinforce the myth that gay people can’t have the same level of success every day by forgetting that this is a personal, not professional, issue in the first place.
Yet, the crap continues – and has become an emerging topic in thoughtless “thought leadership.”
Out at Work: The Business Case for LGBT Diversity
A new report from Outworking set for release this Thursday, The Business Case for LGBT Diversity, actually measures the financial impact of inclusion and diversity initiatives specific to sexual orientation. It also amalgamates that quantifiable data with qualitative stories, collecting perspectives on what employees are actually offended by at the office.
Talk about offensive; this report is downright disgusting. First, we’re measuring how much money homosexual workers are worth to our company, ascribing a dollar value to a protected class – which, if you think about it, likely would not play well were this exercise cross-applied to, say, African-American workers. Furthermore, the things that the study finds that employees think it’s OK to say to a gay person are mind-blowing. Saying I’m shocked, even as an out of the closet lesbian, at some of these gems is something of an understatement, to say the least.
So, if you ever feel like saying any of these things is acceptable at work, remember – you’re also saying them about the CEO of the world’s most profitable company and most recognizable brand. But since ignorance is apparently endemic, here’s a handy guide for homophobes – please feel free to consult this next time you feel the uncontrollable urge to talk to a honosexual coworker about something you shouldn’t be bringing up in the first place.
Shit You Should Never Say To Tim Cook (Or Any Gay Person at the Office, Ever)
The recap of the report published by the Huffington Post in advance of its release this week included just a few of the hundreds of comments written, verbatim, from the US respondents surveyed for the LGBT2020 research.
These comments, from real people using the words they really use to describe what’s pissing them off right now in their workplaces, reads like Mein Kampf fan fiction, frankly.
It’s shocking, disturbing and, sadly, all real shit people say every day.
To all you liberal urban elites (or just well informed, open minded, progressive people) out there, prepare to have your minds blown:
“I can’t add your wife to your health insurance because your marriage isn’t ‘real'”
“It’s just a decision, I don’t support the choice to be unnatural. Just be straight like the rest of us”
“You are not angry enough to be a real lesbian: you’re not like the other girl who works here”
“Now you and that other f*g can add your boyfriends to the work medical plans, that way when you get AIDS you will all be covered”
“I don’t like those kind of people with ‘scary’ sexual preferences”
“Please, I don’t want to hear the details of your lifestyle”
Yeah…so, those are real. I’m not quite sure what to say – and if you know me, you know that it’s not often I’m almost speechless about anything. Of course, if you’ve been watching or following the news, you’d think the tides of legal and public opinion had changed, particularly when it comes to marriage equality.
The good news is that gay marriage is legal in more states than ever before, and more Americans are in favor of gay marriage than oppose it. In fact, even my grandmother has come around, and her ultimate acceptance of this issue is something of a microcosm of our larger societal attitudes surrounding gay marriage. But as much progress as we’ve made, the gay marriage headlines hide the fact that when it comes to work, things have not gotten better for LGBT employees.
Out at the Office: The Struggle for LGBT Employees Continues
In fact, in the two years since Out Now released their last study, this most recent report finds that the percentage of LGBT employees in the U.S. who feel they could come out at work has actually declined.
Think about that for a moment. Two years ago, gay marriage remained a hot button, highly contentious issue and something of a lightning rod of a litmus test for LGBT equality, legal in only a handful of states.
Two years ago, there was not a single professional athlete out of the closet, and the federal government didn’t yet recognize LGBT Americans as a separate, protected class – even then, more people felt safe coming out at work than they do today.
The reason behind this seeming paradox between personal and professional progress is probably the fact that people still say stupid shit like the comments listed above, creating an environment of intimidation and harassment for LGBT employees. While we’ve become more comfortable talking about sexuality in the open, that conversation at work, sadly, seems stuck in the status quo.
Now, it’s important to understand these situations aren’t one-off anomalies or isolated anecdotes. In fact, the OutNow survey showed that one in six LGBT employees reported being harassed at work. Do you realize how many professionals that staggering statistic suggests were personally affected by on-the-job harassment?
If you’re like me, and you suck at math, consider the fact that according to the Huffington Post, there are 10 million LGBT employees currently working in full-time jobs in the United States. That means a total of 2.5 million Americans were harassed for being gay at work in the past year alone. Think about that. 2.5 million of your colleagues, clients and coworkers were adversely affected professionally because of a personal choice – in one year. Translating that to HR terms, that’s one annual performance review that fails to meet expectations – and spectacularly so.
These findings, frankly, piss me off. And hopefully, they piss you off, too. But here’s the thing: I don’t have some big answer or quick fix for solving this pressing problem. There’s no immediate cure, and change isn’t going to happen overnight.
But this is one issue that, whenever I bring it up, seems to be answered with some broad statement of hope that change will happen, someday. Just not today.
But here’s hoping that Tim Cook’s announcement makes a difference in the findings of this report next year, and at least does a little bit to expedite that day when ‘some day’ finally arrives. Because it’s about time that we all “think different” about LGBT employees in the workplace.