Friday, January 16, 2009

Email from a gay guy about being Out in the workplace

Just after Christmas, a reader sent me the following email:

Dear GB,

I am an avid reader of your blog, and I have a question for you.

What are your thoughts about being out in the workplace? In particular, for investment banking/trading/private equity/hedgies type? I am late 20s, in the private equity industry in North America, and find that it have been pretty difficult in connecting with others at the firm (because I decline to talk about my personal life..)

I would be very grateful if you could talk a bit more about your strategy in your blog. thanks a bunch!

I've written quite a lot about this topic in previous postings, but I know that it's an important subject for many readers so I think it's good to discuss it occasionally. Back in 2007 I answered a 'Dear GB' email from a guy who was starting his banking career, and last year I did a posting about a conversation that I had with a junior gay sales guy who works for the same bank as me. On a related subject, back in 2007 I also did a posting about conversational evasion techniques.

Indeed, when I started my career I was evasive when talking about my personal life with colleagues, no doubt in much the same way that the reader who sent me this email currently is. However I don't think that's necessary any more, after all, all the major banks with investment banking divisions have internal networks for their gay staff. These days I don't hide my sexuality at work but I don't broadcast it either, so I still use the word 'partner' rather than 'boyfriend'. As a result a lot of colleagues including my boss know that I'm gay, and it's no big deal as long as I'm good at my job.

The reader makes a good point, namely that if one is constantly being evasive, it's hard to connect with one's colleagues. But connecting with one's colleagues is very valuable, because that helps teamwork and hence helps one succeed. Hiding one's sexuality is also a drain on one's productivity, because it's something that's always at the back of one's mind so one can't relax. However, as I said in the posting about the conversation that I had with a junior gay sales guy, one needs to be confident about one's sexuality to be out in a banking environment. It's just like being in a school playground where bullies enjoy picking on the weak! So as I said in my post about the confidence mirror, if one is fully confident about one's sexuality one should always get the right reaction if one handles it in the right way. One must act as though being gay is the most natural thing in the world, which of course it is for gay people!

So how should the reader begin the process of being more open with his colleagues? I don't think it's a good idea to suddenly announce one's sexuality. That's a very self-centered thing to do, because it implies that other people are interested in the news. Instead one should look for casual ways to slip the information into conversation. However, I'd recommend doing it on a one-to-one basis, because when it's one-to-many some people may react in particular ways because of the impression that they want to give to the other people present. I also think that telling people who like to gossip is a good thing in this context, because if one tells the right person then everyone else will end up knowing which helps get the job done!

Do any other readers have any thoughts on this subject?


Anonymous said...

The workplace is as you say like an adult 'school playground' and the reader certainly does have to feel confident within himself as to who he is before he starts the process of 'comming out'. Like alot of these dilemmas it does all depend on individual circumstances and personalities, but rest assured the more you withdraw the more the 'office gossips' will draw up their own conclusions as to what goes on in your private life. They probably all have a good idea or opinion anyway. He should as you say use these people to the best effect and 'let slip' a few long as the reader doesn't overnight then turn into a 'raving queen', I suspect most will just accept it. He can then relax, be himself and get on with the job and not continually have to have 'a story' up his sleeve if asked a question on his weekend/thoughts on subjects that all are talking about.
Even in these times there is still a certain amount of homophobia in some workplaces but it is not tolerated under law....
I hope the reader can resolve this as ther is nothing more draining than hiding behind a mask.....
But what do I know. I am in the fortunate position to work for a company that is very diverse and accepting and doesn't tolerate discrimation of any sought.
I wish him good wishes and hope he manages to be himself.
To you GB, glad to hear you had/having a grand ol time in Thailand, it certainly is a great place and probably just the tonic you needed in these emotional times for you. But caution on meeting that guy who knows you blog.I think he maybe abit narcassistic and what he really wants is to see your encounter as a post....
take care

Kenski said...

My solution? Wait for a dress down Friday then turn up at 9am sharp in a fabulous red sequinned dress!

Okay, so I'm kidding... Okay??

Funnily enough, for the most part in the UK I've been 'out' at work. I'm not exactly out in my current contract, but that's partly due to not wanting to interact socially with others and partly due to the atmosphere here being very laddish and vocally homophobic. I doubt the guys here are actually anti-gay, but 'that' kind of humour is rife.

In previous jobs, because I've been invested in them, I've stood up and said something and then ended up great friends with the self-same type.

Whatever you do decide it's a good idea to be aware of the laws wherever you are. When I was working in Texas it was legal to fire people for being gay. The unspoken policy seemed to be that if anyone gay spoke up then they'd be dismissed as a trouble-maker. No disciplinary action was taken when people were hateful behind gay colleagues' backs. All in all very unpleasant, but again I chose not to invest myself in it as I knew it was a temporary gig.

The flip side is that I do feel you have to be honest (=out) with close colleagues. Everyone I've ever remained friends with (and hence have been good contacts) after a contract has run out has known. I think if you detatch too much then you become like a ghost and nobody will really miss you when you're physicall gone and hence won't be keen to get you back for new work.

It's very easy to say 'be gay', 'be out' etc but I do still think it's wise to pick your battles, even these days.

Having said that, I never lie if someone asks me about what my wife/girlfriend does. I always put people 'straight'.

The flip side is that if someone tries to engage me in a 'she's hot, isn't she' type of dialogue, I usually respond that they're 'really not my type' :-)

TNC said...

I agree with the previous two comments. The reader must be have self-confidence, sense of self, and have already come out to himself and hopefully a few other close family and friends.

However, the reader does not have to feel like he has to come out at work. If an opportunity to tell close colleagues presents itself, then he may feel comfortable to proceed. But I don't recommend doing it for the sake of being out at work, especially if he is still unprepared, uncomfortable or unsure of his sexuality.

Before my recent coming out, I was subconsciously miserable at work and this misery kept in the back of my mind but enough to affect my relationships with colleagues and managers. Once I came out to close family and friends, I feel more confident about myself, enjoy my work more, and speak up more often with more people. Yet, I still have not come out to any coworkers and feel so much better about my professional self.

Generally, I think coming out is a positive experience and will positively affect all aspects of a person's life. So whether or not the reader comes out at work, he will probably be perceived more positive, happy, and self-confident.

Anonymous said...

I very much agree with the GB. Indeed, producing a 'dramatic' come-out is uncalled for. Your sexual orientation is your private matter and as such not suitable for a general public discourse.

Coming out to friends and co-workers is something that you may want to do, once you feel safe and confident enough that no one is out there to harm you and your career.

Last but not least, I have always tried to reduce the awkwardness of the situation by saying, 'yup', this is my friend. We live and travel together. (You ought to be very dense not to get it right...). My point being here is that coming-out actually boils down to a one-way statement, leaving the other guy in a somewhat awkward situation. How is he supposed to react?

For my part, I do not want anyone to either approve or disapprove of the way I live my life. Thanks Lord, I am still paying my bills, and am thus still calling the shots.


headbang8 said...

I would love to keep my personal life, personal.

At the same time, I want a job with provides some kind of fulfilment--intellectual and emotional.

This requires at least some emotional engagement with my working environment. that is, valuing and trusting members of your team, perhaps even making them friends.

Under those circumstances, I would find it hard to invest myself in the interpersonal environment of work and stay in the closet.

Maybe modern companies demand too much passion and commitment from us, and it drains our emotions without replenishing them.

I couldn't imagine working in a stressful, emotionally demanding environment, going home to recharge my emotional batteries, only to spend the emotional recharge again the next day. A safe environment for workers who bring their soul and spirit along with them to the job every day, is the least a company can provide.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for answering my email. (and for everyone for your comments). I sent GB this email and will certainly look at applying these ideas in my situation.

I think also each situation is going to be a case-by-case basis. How homophobic is the office you work at? How senior are you at the firm? How strong are your relationships at the company? There are so many check marks before you can consider whether you want to be out or not. Its definitely not a black/white issue...

Thanks again - this conversation has been helpful! Anonymously yours, A