Supporting employees who come out at work

After ITV presenter Phillip Schofield recently revealed he is gay, Philip Richardson offers advice for employers wanting to support staff who choose to disclose their sexuality

ELGBTQ+ employees are often reticent about coming out at work and worry about discrimination. Research by Stonewall, a charity that campaigns for the equality of LGBT people, has revealed more than a third of LGBT staff (35 per cent) have hidden their sexuality at work for fear of discrimination. 

Workplace bullying aimed at the LGBT community is a serious threat with one in 10 black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT employees (10 per cent) having been physically attacked by customers or colleagues in the last year, according to the Stonewall research.

Employer obligations

Employers have a duty of care to all employees and must ensure they are not subject to unfavourable treatment as a result of their sexual orientation, which would extend to any form of discrimination in the event an employee chooses to come out at work.

Organisations are encouraged to have an open and honest workplace culture where employees can be themselves and feel supported should any discrimination take place. Having a diverse workplace should be encouraged and seen as a positive. 

The Equality Act 2010 protects employees from discrimination and harassment at work because of their sexual orientation. Employers are legally responsible for the conduct of their staff; if an employee uses homophobic ‘banter’ and jokes against an LGBT colleague, an employer is liable.

Staff are advised to speak with their manager first and try to sort out the matter informally, it can then be progressed to HR, a formal complaint and could go on to result in a claim at an employment tribunal. 

Senior support

Managers should strive to create an inclusive and accepting culture at work. Employers are advised to support LGBTQ+ employees by: 

  • Making sure staff are aware of an organisation’s policies relating to equality, bullying and harassment.
  • Inviting colleagues on equality training.
  • Challenging any homophobic comments immediately and explaining to the culprit why and how their behaviour is unacceptable.
  • Having an equality and diversity officer.
  • Advising senior staff to talk positively and openly about LGBTQ+ friends and family.
  • Using inclusive language at work. 
  • Advising staff that you are there to support them if they decide to come out at work. 
  • Getting involved in supporting Pride and involving all staff in attending other LGBTQ+ events.
  • Inviting employees to complete equality monitoring exercises and take part in staff surveys to access how they feel if they are LGBTQ+.
  • Working with HR to create a specific LGBTQ+ discrimination policy for managers to understand how to handle the situation should an incident occur.

Legal rights

It’s important for modern employers to remember to create an inclusive environment at work and support LGBTQ+ staff by putting in place relevant policies, hosting equality workshops, celebrating events such as Pride festivals and creating a workplace LGBTQ+ support group.

Employers and employees should be made aware that discriminating against someone because of their sexual orientation is illegal. Equality and diversity must be respected within a work environment. Workplaces are becoming more varied and open and this should be celebrated as a reflection of society. 

Philip Richardson is a partner and head of employment law at Stephensons Solicitors LLP