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Supporting Employees to come out at work - An HR perspective

Category: testimonial, LGBT inclusion, LGBT+, What Our People Say, Staff Testimonial, National Coming Out Day, gay, lesbian, LGBT Network, CityFibre


Julie Richard

I was fortunate enough to grow up with the belief that differences are what make us special, people can be themselves and be liked (or not), trusted and respected for their personality and no other characteristic. Naively, I expected that everyone thought and behaved in the same way. I never really thought about other perceptions.

I still remember the first time a colleague told me they were gay; the conversation went something like:

Them: ‘I am gay’

Me: ‘And? I don’t care you’re still you’ (I thought I was being a fabulous person, I really wasn’t!)

Them: ‘No one at work knows, so I feel like I can’t talk about my outside life’  

Me: ‘Don’t tell them, I don’t feel the need to run around saying I’m straight so don’t see why you feel the need to say ‘Hi, I’m gay’. It’s nobody else’s business, get over it’

I am sure it will come as no surprise to know that they never confided in me again!

As I have got older and learned more, I often reflect on that discussion and really wish I could change how I approached it. It must be very difficult feeling unable to be yourself for a very large chunk of your time. I do wonder whether they ever came out to anyone else or if I put them off for life.

The second time someone chose to confide in me (clearly didn’t know about my first clumsy attempt!) I was a lot more aware of how I could be supportive.

By this point I was a ‘real’ HR person and fortunate enough to work for a company whose policies were carefully crafted, and we had masses of Inclusion initiatives including training, networks and pretty much anything else you can think of as well as a zero-tolerance approach to victimisation and harassment of any kind. It was the type of environment where anyone could be confident bringing their whole self to work. Given this backdrop, it took me by surprise when one of my colleagues asked me if they could have a quiet chat as they were fearful of coming out.

I won’t go into the full details of our conversation but essentially, they were coming to the realisation they were not straight but there were family concerns that made it particularly difficult. They were not so much worried about coming out as a person but were under a huge amount of stress as they felt they would be judged both in and out of work and through their local community. They also thought ‘coming out’ was an all or nothing deal, they tell everyone all at once or tell no one, hence the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Following our first discussion I signposted them to our Employee Assistance Programme and through this arranged for face to face counselling. The EAP helped them break down what they wanted to do and their next steps into manageable chunks.

Over the course of the next six months we met regularly and worked through their personal coming out process. We looked at lots of support mechanisms and I made myself available as much as possible whenever they wanted to talk things through.

Interestingly (and I believe somewhat unusually) my colleague chose to openly come out at work first. There was no ‘big bang’ moment, instead they joined the LGBT+ network’s social events and gradually started to talk about the events with their colleagues during the usual ‘how was your evening’ conversations. As they gauged their peer’s reactions and found they were not ‘judged’ they opened up to more colleagues until virtually everyone knew.

It was a few months later that they told their family. By this time, they had a strong support network, were a lot more confident in themselves and made sure they had lined up channels of support. I am sure that this time cannot have been easy however, they seem much happier now and their career has taken off in a big way since they started to be their authentic self.  

If there’s one takeaway I would like people to have from my story it is that if you are thinking of coming out, there’s loads of support available. At CityFibre, our LGBT+ Network or HR Team are always open to an off the record conversation. At no point did I discuss my colleague’s circumstances with other members of HR or their manager. As a HR Team, we would never discuss your thoughts or take formal action unless you explicitly confirm you would like us to and you never know, we might just be able to provide some useful ideas!

By Julie Richard.

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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