Many companies now have policies prohibiting discrimination based on employees’ sexual orientation and gender-identity. As reported in this issue, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has released its annual list of the best places to work. This piece is intended to augment that valuable information by examining the workplace from the other side. Specifically, what’s the best way to navigate through Corporate America as an open LGBT person?
Our LGBT corporate leaders all said the same thing: Be yourself, be loyal to your company, do your research, use your resources and let your own talents shine through.
Q-Notes spoke with LGBT leaders in the white collar workforce and asked them to share their experiences and advice on being openly gay in Corporate America. The tips we received from our panel pretty much boil down to this: Be yourself, be loyal to your company, do your research, use your resources and let your own talents shine through.
Robert Dogens, one of three co-chairs for the 2008 HRC Carolinas Gala and a senior vice president at the Wachovia Corporation, has been out at work since 1998.
Although anti-gay prejudice is something he occasionally fears, he also told us that his work environment has turned out to be a safe one.
“Wachovia does an excellent job of providing an environment where you feel safe to be who you are and you are judged on your performance,” he said. “You are never really sure of what prejudices others might hold against you, but that’s not specific just to sexual orientation.”
Dogens said being out increases your ability to do your job and do it well. “I believe that people respect you more once you are yourself. Being in the closet or hiding who you are takes a great deal of energy and that energy loss directly affects your ability to be productive at your occupation or career. By being open about me, I can give my company all of the energy and time I used to spend ‘hiding’ who I really was.”
LaWana Mayfield, another co-chair of the HRC Carolinas Gala and an employee of the American Red Cross, echoed Dogens’ remarks. An openly gay young person entering the workforce should “maintain professionalism” and “know your job,” she said. “Your capabilities, not your sexuality, will shine through.”
Transgender activist Angela Brightfeather is a senior vice president and partner at a construction firm in Burlington, N.C. The company has full policies protecting against anti-LGBT discrimination. Brightfeather, who has been out on the job for 20 years, said those entering Corporate America should remember that “the one thing an employer cannot pay any employee enough money for is honesty and loyalty.”
She encourages closeted young people to be honest about themselves and to stand up for their dignity at work. “Be honest about who you are, be loyal to the employer who hires you and do not accept or tolerate discrimination against yourself or any other employee you work with.”
Scott Bishop, the third HRC Carolinas Gala co-chair and a vice president at Bank of America who has been out at work for almost 10 years, asked young people to consider the sheer amount of energy it takes to be in the closet.
“Think about the effort it’s going to take to hide who you are,” he said. “Think of all the ‘stories’ you’re going to have to keep up with. What you’ve said and to whom. That takes a lot of energy — energy you could be using to put to the work they hired you for. If you’re not comfortable being out, then maybe it’s not a company you want to work for.”
Like Brightfeather and Bishop, Dogens also stresses safety, comfort and respect. “Coming out at work is a personal decision, so whether a person decides to stay in the closet or not, the one thing I would ask is that they not protect themselves at the detriment of others who choose to be out. If you respect yourself, then others will respect you as well. Remember, if you act like who and what you are is wrong, then others will also see it that way.”
He added that young people who are openly gay and entering the workforce should take the time to know if their company is one they’ll be happy working for.
Do your homework and don’t get caught with a discriminatory situation or workplace environment.
“Determine if your company is one that is inclusive and supportive. Do your homework first. If your company has domestic partner benefits, then they are more than likely to have an inclusive work environment,” he said.
Bishop told us that finding information on a prospective employer is as easy as talking to a recruiter.
“Ask your recruiter if the company supports either formally or informally, its LGBT employees,” Bishop said. “Look for companies that do, there are more and more becoming supportive every day, through workplace policies, financial support to the community and creating affinity organizations.”
Both Dogens and Bishop encourage young people to make use of the resources available for LGBT Corporate America. “Use the HRC Corporate Equality Index score to guide you in any research you’re doing for a future employer. Those scores aren’t gained easily,” Dogens said.
He also refers young people and corporate employees to Diversity, Inc., an online resource and magazine with information on the policies and work environments affecting people of all races, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, disability and age.
Wachovia and Bank of America were two Carolina businesses listed in HRC’s Best Places to Work guide. Dogens noted that Wachovia, like many other companies, has internal resources for LGBT employees and that he often takes advantage of the resources offered by community organizations, as well.
“Wachovia has an employee resource network for their LGBT employees and that has been a great source of support for me,” he said. “Also, my involvement with the work of the Human Rights Campaign and Equality North Carolina has given a source of pride and confidence. Working for a company who respects and values the individual makes all the difference in the world.”
As political leaders, business people and citizens continue to worry about a declining economy, the one thing a young person can’t afford to lose is his job or her career. Taking the time to research that downtown corporate position you’re dreaming of will go a long way to ensure you will be safe and welcomed by your supervisors, co-workers and others when you get there.