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Gay employees don't have to be 'out' at work

12 Jul 2018 By Dan Williams

It should be up to individuals whether to open up about their sexuality to colleagues, says Dan Williams

I watch a lot of films but, of this year’s cinematic releases so far, none has resonated with me more than Love, Simon. It tells the story of closeted gay high school student Simon Spier, who is blackmailed online by an anonymous classmate threatening to ‘out’ him to the rest of the school. This threat forces Simon to consider the person he is at school versus who he is in his personal life, and the possibility that the line between the two could be erased against his will. 

Like Simon, I’m a young, gay man, and I keep my personal life and my work (or, in Simon’s case, school) life separate. This isn’t something I’ve made a conscious decision to do; it’s just happened organically since the start of my career. I’m not afraid of people knowing the truth and I would happily be honest if asked – I just don’t volunteer information unprompted. It’s like having an alter ego. 

At work, I’m in work mode and prefer to be professional. Wearing a uniform, as all staff do, also helps maintain the distinction between the two, but it would be the same if I had to put on a suit each morning instead.

Avoiding discussions about my personal life helps me be more productive, and I feel safer in the office as a result. Of course, it’s different for everyone, but this way I can concentrate on getting on with my day without constantly worrying what other people are thinking. Some people rely on their colleagues for advice and support, but I’m just not one of them.

Working in a male-dominated environment, I think there’s a certain amount of fear of acceptance, and the relative lack of diversity in the automotive industry fuels my reluctance to voluntarily stand out from the crowd. I take comfort in knowing that I’m respected because I’m good at my job, rather than any other reason, and so my sexuality shouldn’t be a factor. 

But equally, openness around LGBT+ issues is the key to acceptance, and people often take cues from others when deciding what they feel is appropriate to talk about. Acceptance around LGBT+ issues has come so far in recent years because people are more open, and it does concern me that I might be unintentionally hindering my own acceptance among my colleagues.

Of course, sometimes there are situations in which work and personal life need to intertwine; for example, if someone were experiencing poor mental health, this would inevitably affect them at work. If they were to bottle things up and avoid being open about what they were going through, the situation would likely become far worse.

It’s up to HR and senior management to create and maintain a culture of acceptance in organisations, where employees can feel comfortable expressing themselves as much or as little as they choose. Yes, there needs to be a formal policy in place too, as for other characteristics protected under the Equality Act 2010 such as age, ethnicity and gender, but good communication is just as important. Employees need to know that the company supports them – there’s no need to bedeck the office with rainbow flags, but do have an open-door policy and offer further support if needed.

Relevant training for line managers is also crucial. For many people, their boss is their first port of call for any problems, and these managers should be both comfortable and able to deal with any issues that are brought to them – LGBT+ or otherwise – as well as having a general awareness of who their employees are and what might compromise their wellbeing.

In order to love work, I know I need to learn to love myself more. Perhaps I need to take a leaf out of Simon’s book and learn to be more open. After all, work is a place where we all have a certain degree of vulnerability – we just trust that it won’t be exploited.  

Dan Williams is people services specialist at Vauxhall Motors, and a CIPD student

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