Coming out at work has never been easy.
According to a study done by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, in 2018, 46% of LGBTQ+ folks were closeted at work compared to 50% in 2008 — a 4% decrease in 10 years.
But it has been encouraging to see progress, and is part of what made it easier for me, as a cisgender, white, gay man, to come out as a CEO.
After months of lockdown early in the pandemic, I made the difficult decision to come out. After sharing my decision with my family and close friends, I then turned to people I knew well and trusted at work. Looking back, it makes sense why the next 10 or so people I came out to were colleagues — it felt safe.
By then, I had seen LGBTQ+ folks included and celebrated for who they were for years at Barefoot, and increasingly in our network. And when I began dating, found the perfect man and got married, people at work came alongside me and celebrated every step of my journey.
Having reflected on what created a safe environment for me to reveal more of my full self at work, I learned a few things that I wanted to make sure we did at the agency moving forward. It should be easy for others who might be closeted to come out — when they are ready to do so — at work.
1. Don’t require or assume that people who share more about their identity want to be spokespeople
Issues of sexual orientation and identity can be complex. As leaders, we should not hijack any person’s identity and assume they are ready or have any desire to share their experience with the organization or other audiences. If such expectations are set, it can discourage people from truly being themselves at work.
2. Create a variety of ways in which people can share more about themselves
Share information on employee resource groups, opportunities to participate in Pride activities and invitations to tell stories in person or on video. Everyone is different. Some folks will be more comfortable sharing their story and perspective on video than they might be in person or on a call. And make sure to invite people to celebrate moments in their lives, such as marriage and having children, just as we celebrate the occasions of straight colleagues.
3. Expand your view of inclusion
Inclusion should reach the most marginalized person in your workplace. This is why it is so important to know your employees as well as what is going on in the media. I am a white, gay man in this community and have tremendous privilege. Trans folks and people who do drag are under attack right now and may need extra care in the workplace. There should always be a space for people in your workplace to intentionally consider who is being marginalized, how they are being marginalized and if something is going on locally or nationally that is making their situation worse.
Looking back on my life, I am grateful I was able to share my authentic self at work, but I know not everyone is that lucky. We spend so much time at work, and feeling like a part of you is hidden from the people you see every day can be isolating. I know we are far from inclusion being the new normal, but I am hopeful that we are on the right track. By committing to a strategy of inclusion, we engender a broader sense of belonging and drive representation that mirrors the diversity of the consumers, clients and communities we serve.
As CEO of Barefoot, Chris Evans is responsible for shaping an agency culture that brings out the best in people and the clients they serve. He holds a bachelor’s in organizational behavior from Miami University and has lived briefly in Seoul, South Korea. He and his husband, Matt, live in Cincinnati. Chris is a father of two boys and loves mountain biking, gardening, and really, really long walks.