More than half of all people who are gay do not disclose their sexual identity at work, says the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for the LGBTQ community.
Clearly, coming out still carries risk — even in 2016 — but so does staying in the closet, says J.D. Schramm, a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Revealing one’s sexual identity on the job requires careful consideration, Schramm notes. But he says through his own experiences and as an observer that living life openly and honestly — what he calls “leading out loud” — has served him not only professionally, but also personally. He shared some of his insights in a recent webinar about communication strategies for LGBTQ leaders.
“Every LGBTQ person has one thing in common with every other LGBTQ person, and that is the journey that we’ve all gone on in order to be ready to communicate who we are,” he says. “Coming out is not a moment in time, it is a process. But it’s still a personal choice. I think it’s best, but it’s not my decision to make for others.”
Schramm, who taught an LGBT Executive Leadership Program this summer at Stanford GSB, says despite all the progress in gay rights issues, the odds are still stacked against the community. But as gay leaders take control of their own stories, the climate has steadily improved. He points to Raymond Braun, who received both a bachelor’s and master’s from Stanford University, as an example. As an employee at Google, Braun originated YouTube’s award-winning LGBTQ strategy, which served as inspiration for Google’s broader diversity marketing efforts. Forbes named him to its 30 Under 30 All-Stars list in 2016, and Out magazine named him one of the 100 most influential LGBTQ people in the world. Today Braun runs his own company and works as a broadcast and social media correspondent on social justice issues.
LGBTQ leaders have several options for how they control their stories: They can be artificial or authentic, private or transparent. For instance, someone might choose to be private at work but out among friends. Another person might behave very provocatively but lack authenticity — Schramm points to Liberace as an example.
“You can lead from any box,” Schramm says. “But you can lead stronger if you lead out loud, which means leading from the top right quadrant.”
For those considering coming out at work, Schramm offers a few suggestions. First, before you even join a company, consider how it works with its LGBTQ employees. Some companies protect LGBTQ status and actively recruit candidates. A company’s transparency during the interview process can help prospective employees understand how open a culture is and tap into a network of gay leaders to navigate a new job effectively.
If you’re ready to come out in your current job, Schramm offers these suggestions:
- Consider where you live, where you work, and your industry. Some parts of the country or industries might not be as welcoming as others, and you should weigh this in your decision.
- Privately share with a smaller group of key colleagues to gauge reactions.
- Look for your best allies in the straight world, articulate your goals, and let them mentor you.
- Consider more indirect ways to come out, such as featuring your leadership roles or affinity with LGBT groups on your LinkedIn profile or resume.
- Bring your significant other to a work event where spouses and partners are invited.
- If you have a bio on the company website, add a line about your spouse and family.
- If single, find simple ways to share stories about your life. For example, “When my ex-boyfriend and I went to London…” “When I was a leader in the undergrad gay pride group…” These sorts of conversations allow a person to come out without “coming out” being the focus.
- Seek out gay leaders in senior management who have a transparent presence. Having somebody who has blazed the trail can be a huge asset.
Schramm has faced this decision himself. When he arrived at Stanford in 2007 as a lecturer, he says he chose a simple but effective way to telegraph who he was when he posted his online bio that referenced his husband, Ken.
Living transparently, Schramm discovered, brings rewards beyond feeling more authentic at work. Two years ago, he and his husband believed they were about to welcome a new baby into the world. A woman in Texas had agreed to allow the couple to adopt her newborn. They flew to the Lone Star State only to learn the mother had changed her mind. Devastated, Schramm’s husband blogged about their grief. A couple in California’s Central Valley read the story and offered to conceive a baby for Schramm and his husband. Now, they are the proud parents of a baby girl and teenage boy who they adopted from foster care.
“We couldn’t have predicted how people would respond to our blog post,” Schramm says. “Because we were willing to step out and share not only the joys but the setbacks — by leading out loud — it brought our heart’s desire in a way far beyond our imagination.”
J.D. Schramm is the MBA Class of 1978 Lecturer in Organizational Behavior.