Out & Equal Shows Gains of Being Out at the Workplace
For years now, change has been afoot in the workplace for LGBT employees. Coming out at work is no longer the assured career killer it used to be at most corporations only 20 years ago.
In part, of course, this is a symptom of larger cultural changes -- changes that recently culminated in the legalization of same-sex marriage via the ballot box in several states, the long-awaited coming out of celebrities like Jody Foster and the first ever mention of the LGBT community in the inauguration speech of a U.S. President.
But the increasing acceptance of LGBT people at work also derives from the courageous and diligent work of those individuals who took personal risks -- by coming out of the closet, promoting LGBT-positive policies and changing corporate culture to create workplaces where LGBT people could finally be themselves.
Now, the stories of some of these people are told in the newly released book, "Out and Equal at Work: From Closet to Corner Office." Edited by Selisse Berry, Founding Executive Director of the nonprofit organization, Out and Equal Workplace Advocates, this informative publication brings together a collection of personal essays about the contributors’ struggles to come out at work and change their workplace culture.
"We deliberately chose Valentine’s week for the launch," Berry said at the Feb. 12 launch party in San Francisco. After all, she observed, this publication is a statement that "all of us should be free to love who we want."
Joined by staff and friends of Out and Equal and a handful of the book’s 36 contributors, Berry led an engaging reading and panel discussion. She talked about how her journey to establishing Out and Equal came about after her own career ambitions were cut short.
"After earning my four-year postgraduate degree and moving toward what should have been one of my life’s most joyous accomplishments, I was denied ordination as a Presbyterian minister because of my sexual orientation," said Berry.
Undoubtedly, seeing the career she’d studied years for pulled away as a result of anti-LGBT bias led to a passion for challenging discrimination that has continued ever since. Under Berry’s leadership, Out and Equal has grown to an organization that has more than 20 employees of its own and, last year, held its first Global Summit in London.
"Coming out as a gay man at work was the furthest thing from my mind when I joined Clorox in 1988," said another panel member, Tom Johnson, vice president of Finance, Global Business Services at The Clorox Company. "Despite its location in Oakland, California -- right across the Bay from San Francisco -- there was no indication that coming out would be good for my career."
As a result, Johnson spent years in the closet before he finally came out when his employer offered him an assignment in London. "I’m sure the company envisioned the low-cost transfer of a hard-working single guy," Johnson read from his piece in the anthology. "I surprised my boss by telling him that I wanted to accept the position, but my partner would have to come with me." Fortunately, Clorox was supportive.
Since then, Johnson has seen Clorox change its policies to offer domestic partner benefits, give CEO-level sponsorship of Out and Equal, provide company support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and receive a perfect score on the LGBT equality index. Many of these achievements have been because of the hard work LGBT employees and their allies in the company.
But Johnson also points out that these changes come as a result of Clorox’s recognition that the company needs to remain competitive. "As a consumer products company located in the Bay Area, we needed to attract and retain a diverse employee population reflective of our consumer base," he said.
He also shared that LGBT employees have played an important role in helping Clorox market effectively to the LGBT community. Thus, ending discrimination also aids the company’s bottom line.
Also among the panelists was Cynthia Martin, who also happens to be married to Berry (like several other couples, the two met through their involvement with Out and Equal). Martin spoke about being the first "out" executive at Eastman Kodak Company and one of the few openly LGBT executives in the country in the 1990s.
Her experience, she noted, was greatly eased by working as Chief of Staff for a CEO at Eastman Kodak who deliberately included LGBT employees in the company’s diversity policies. When Martin finally found the courage to come out to him, she told how he "stopped on a dime and then turned to me with a huge smile and said: ’I’m so happy that you shared this with me. I will do whatever I can to support you.’"
With the CEO behind her, she was able to help make more positive changes for LGBT employees throughout the company.
"Out and Equal: From Closet to Corner Office" includes essays from numerous leaders in corporate America, including high level executives from Disney, Xerox, Campbell Soup Company, Accenture, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intuit and Wells Fargo. Their highly personal accounts capture their experiences of coming out in the workplace, their efforts to promote LGBT equality, and the barriers they encountered along the way.
Unfortunately, those barriers are myriad. In his presentation, Tom Johnson mentioned negative responses from co-workers "uncomfortable" with Clorox’s Pride events. Other contributors to the book write about how subtle digs, exclusions, and simple ignorance all create environments hostile to LGBT workers. Despite the rightfully celebratory tone of the book launch, we still have a long way to go.
As Berry noted in her presentation, it is still legal to discriminate against LGBT employees in 29 states. And while those of us who live in the more enlightened metropolitan areas might not experience the levels of discrimination common 10 or 20 years ago, there are many places where leaving the closet will certainly cut short your career trajectory to the corner office; it could even land you in the unemployment line.
Nevertheless, as shown in the compelling personal testimonies in "Out and Equal: From Closet to Corner Office," LGBT workers have much to celebrate. And this groundbreaking book is essential reading for those who want to create workplaces that welcome and support LGBT employees.
For more information about Out and Equal, you can visit their website at www.outandequal.org. The book, "Out and Equal: From Closet to Corner Office," can be purchased on their website, through most online booksellers, or ordered through your local bookstore.