Coming Out at Work


Is your company set up to help your LGBTQ+ employees? Here’s some expert advice to get started

BE YOU HERE art installation with LGBTQ rainbow flag in Toronto during Pride Month.

As an author, speaker and advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, with a focus on the transgender community, I am often asked by organizations how they can be proactive and supportive of diversity and inclusivity with this community. Having come out at my work, I have experienced the process and can identify barriers that others might face—and how employers can help.

Often, organizations are not aware of their legal obligations regarding discrimination. With the passing of legislation in 2012 in Ontario and 2016 federally, gender orientation and identity are protected against discriminatory behaviour. This protection has been solidified further by amendments to Criminal Code legislation.

But what else can companies do above and beyond just following the law?

First, they should develop clear polices that support LGBTQ+ employees. These need to be a set of statements—endorsed by senior leadership and developed with input from multiple stakeholders in the organization—to demonstrate a commitment to support the community in the workplace. Such a policy needs to clearly state the beliefs and expectations of the organization and conduct of employees. If your organization already has such policies regarding other forms of discrimination, make sure to add gender (versus sex), gender identity and gender expression to the list to demonstrate that any discrimination based on these additional characteristics are also covered. 

If you are starting from scratch, examples of how to create such a policy can be found from the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Transgender Law Center and Queen’s University. A good policy should also contain a clearly articulated and transparent process for reporting breaches. The statements should be communicated throughout the company, not only in print, but also in staff forums, allowing for discussion. It is critical that everyone understand the seriousness of the commitment and the consequences for those who demonstrate discriminatory behaviour. 

Establishing processes

But policy is not enough. Processes to support and enact policies are also needed. This is where many organizations fall short. When a person comes out, it’s not the time to figure out what needs to be done to support them. I cannot even begin to recall all the times I was told “I don’t know if we can do that” or “I’m not sure how to do that” when it came to updating documents, records and other information regarding the necessary changes required. Even though everyone was supportive and even enthusiastic about assisting me, the process was much like death by a thousand cuts. I heard “I don’t know” over and over again, and it became extremely frustrating, stressful and exhausting. For instance, in the case of a trans employee who is changing their name, an employer may claim it’s impossible to switch the employee’s name without official government documentation, when, in fact, a name can be changed within an organization’s records in many areas (think corporate directories, email addresses and door signs, for instance). 

What organizations need to do is walk through all the processes prior to someone coming out. And I believe it is not a question of if, but when, for every organization. Thanks to the aforementioned legal protections, more people in the LGBTQ+ community feel comfortable to come out to their employer and colleagues. Therefore, processes should be established. Departments must walk through everything that needs to be done when an employee comes out to them.

For trans employees who will want to change their names, that includes discovering all the locations where gender, pronoun and name changes are kept. Some common places where such information is stored are HR software packages, Excel worksheets, lists in software such as MS Word, and customer relationship management systems. Quite often, organizations inadvertently keep information in multiple formats/server locations, and they often do not communicate with each other, so changes have to be made in each of these locations. It is not uncommon for a few data sources to be missed, resulting in the use or publication of incorrect pronouns and names, which can be a source of anguish for the individual coming out. Email addresses, business cards, websites and social media all need to be updated, as do financial records such as payroll, pension and employee benefits.

Another thing: If your company does not have gender-neutral single-use washrooms already identified, you should think about adding them now. It may take time to make such accommodations; leaving this to the last minute is not a good idea. By doing a “walk through”, all such things can be identified and, more importantly, the steps to make changes noted. And that is the second part of the process. Proper documentation. It is important that all the necessary actions required to make the changes be recorded with sufficient detail as to make it easy for people to follow through. For example, the actual title or position and, if appropriate, the contact name all need to be identified.

Listing all the locations of information that need to be updated, and who to contact to get the changes done, will save a great deal of time and frustration. For example, your organization may keep a company directory for internal use. A name change would have to be updated. Often, particularly in larger organizations, most people do not know who is the “keeper” of this listing or who to contact to make the change. They are forced to find out themselves, leading to frustration and anxiety. If there was a list of data locations (i.e., lists, software and contact names), then any such changes can be expedited with greater efficiency. The overall goal is to keep anxiety to a minimum. A well-documented process and policy will easily achieve this.

Serving customers

Another important aspect is communications to staff when someone makes the decision to come out at work. Organizations need to work with the employee to create a communication strategy that meets the needs of everyone involved. Some may decide to have very little information disclosed, while others will want to take the opportunity to share many aspects of their decision. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Organizations must recognize that everyone’s journey is unique. It is important that employees feel they are in control while also supported. In my case, there were many discussions regarding when the message should go out, to whom, who should send it, and the contents. This will differ by organization depending on size, how many people should be involved, etc. I recommend that any communication should be from the most appropriate senior person, to demonstrate complete commitment to supporting the employee. 

This is a major event in the life of the employee who is coming out, to be their authentic self. It is stressful enough for them to just take that step. That is why it is imperative that organizations be ready to assist them to make sure they are supported. 

But all of this is really only half of the equation. The other aspect is how to create a welcoming environment for members of the LGBTQ+ community, in particular transgender people, as customers. Countless times I am asked for recommendations for lawyers, doctors, other professionals, service providers and stores that are trans friendly. That, unfortunately, is the wrong question. They should be asking who the best service providers/companies are. The reality is, people in the transgender community are willing to sacrifice quality for a welcoming environment. And that is just wrong. 

How can companies help? First, make sure your polices are inclusive of customers. Then, once again, begin the documentation process. Ensure your marketing materials make it clear that members of the LGBTQ+ community are welcome. Consider all print and online material as well as signs inside and outside your building. The rainbow triangle, for example, is available as a sticker and can be placed in entryways to indicate support for the LGBTQ+ community. Next, make training available for all employees that focuses on creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ people. Training should especially be a priority for frontline staff. They are the first point of contact and the face of the company, after all. There are many organizations that offer such training, including Pride at WorkThe 519, and the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion.

Even simple things like modifying intake forms is a great first step. If you require information on gender from a customer, provide choices such as “man”, “woman”, “do not identify with the gender binary”, and “choose not to disclose”. Also, add a location for pronouns and preferred names. There are many in the community who may not have changed their legal documentation but have transitioned socially and now use their correct name and pronouns. Allow them the opportunity to provide that information. 

Every organization is different, and there will be nuances from one company to the next. But the time to act is now. Make sure you are ready. Be proactive, not reactive, and support your employees and clients so they feel safe, comfortable, accepted and appreciated. In the end, it is not only the right thing to do legally, but morally. And truly a win-win for all those involved.

Before retirement, Erin LeBlanc was director of strategic program development and accreditation at Smith School of Business and an adjunct lecturer. Erin has been recognized at Queen’s University for establishing transgender transitioning guidelines, and identifying and removing barriers for individuals transitioning in the workplace. Erin is the author of Stranger in the Mirror: The Search for Me.