Out in the Workplace
Perspectives on Being LGBTQ+ in the OEHS Profession
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LGBTQ+ individuals have been noted to “constitute one of the largest, but least studied, minority groups in the workforce.” To better understand the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals in the workplace, researchers associated with Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center conducted a survey of 2,000 LGBTQ+ workers across the United States. According to the survey, 40 percent of LGBTQ+ workers were not out at their respective workplaces, yet 26 percent of these wished they could be (PDF). When compared with their non-out peers, out LGBTQ+ workers reported higher levels of psychological safety and felt more empowered and able to take more creative risks at work. These data provide initial insight into how common it might be for individuals to come out in the workplace and how being out in the workplace may generally benefit both the individual worker and the organization to which they belong. In fact, in its policy for promoting the health of transgender and gender minority individuals, the American Public Health Association stated:
Noninclusive, heteronormative, and cisnormative workplaces can silence employee voices, which can lead to an atmosphere of fear and silence. This can have a negative impact on the psychological well-being of all employees, including those who self-identify as transgender or gender nonconforming. Alternatively, supportive and inclusive workplace environments, grounded in gender-inclusive work policies, not only give employees a voice but can increase their contributions, job satisfaction, and commitment.
Little is known, however, about the experiences of LGBTQ+ workers within specific industries and professions, much less within our own industrial hygiene and occupational and environmental health and safety community. Disparate attitudes toward LGBTQ+ individuals across industries could potentially affect the experience of OEHS professionals. For example, a recent Canadian study published in Review of Social Economy suggested a high rate of hiring discrimination among out, queer males in the blue-collar sector. Does such discrimination also negatively affect hiring of out OEHS professionals? And if they are hir ed, what sorts of biases could exist within an industry that may affect the work experience of LGBTQ+ OEHS professionals? In addition to “external” biases from workers or management in the organizations of which we are a part, we must also consider what types of “internal” biases might be present within our profession that might hinder our goal of fostering a diverse, equitable, and inclusive (DEI) professional community.
To address some of these concerns, several AIHA members recently established the PR(IH)DE Special Interest Group. The mission of the PR(IH)DE SIG is “to support and promote the professional growth and development of those in the fields of [IH and OEHS] who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and all other sexual orientations and gender identities, as well as their allies/supporters, through networking, mentorship, and research.” Sharing the voices of those in our profession who have made the bold decision to come out in their respective workplaces is paramount to PR(IH)DE’s mission. We therefore recently conducted interviews of three out LGBTQ+ IH and OEHS professionals to gain an understanding of their work experiences and hear their views on how our profession can continue to improve. We spoke with:
• Kimberly (Kim) Henry (she/her), MS, CHMM, CIH, who serves as a staff industrial hygienist for State Accident Insurance Fund (SAIF) Corp., Oregon’s not-for-profit, workers’ compensation insurance company. Kim identifies as a queer woman.
• Jake Shedd (he/him), PhD, an occupational and residential exposure scientist for Bayer Crop Science. Jake identifies as a gay man.
• A third contributor (Anon), who is a government employee and requested to remain anonymous. THE INTERVIEWS Questions were guided by the hierarchy of controls applied to the NIOSH Total Worker Health framework (see Figure 1), as well as by a similar interview of LGBTQ+ safety professionals published by the American Society of Safety Professionals in 2021. The interviews were conducted via email. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity. Q: How and when did you decide to come out at work?
My first experience about being out at work was actually being outed by a coworker. In my 20s I worked on a mostly male team of mechanics, and one of my coworkers apparently let the rest of my team know he had heard I was a lesbian. It could have gone so many different ways, but I was lucky. One of my teammates pulled me aside to talk with me one day. He let me know that this coworker had told everyone I was “gay” and that I had a girlfriend. My teammate shared that regardless of whether it was true or not, he appreciated me and considered me a friend and a great teammate. Another coworker shared that he honestly would have had a hard time if he knew this information before getting to know me as a coworker first. Now that he knew me and had worked with me, he realized it just didn’t matter as much as he would have thought. It was a difficult position to be in, and uncomfortable to say the least. For so long I considered myself a private person, and having anyone know that part of me and my life was actually dangerous on a few levels. My very job could have been in jeopardy due to prejudice and homophobia, and my personal safety was at stake, too. I had friends who were physically brutalized and attacked for being gay. My “coming out at work” experience was not of my own choice and was, thankfully, better than others have experienced.
Figure 1. Hierarchy of controls applied to the NIOSH Total Worker Health framework. Adapted from NIOSH. Click or tap on the figure below to open a larger version in your browser.
JS: I first came out professionally in 2022. After years of sidestepping conversations and not being able to authentically connect with colleagues, I decided it was past time. This decision also came at a transition point in my life; I was finishing graduate school and preparing to enter the workforce. I had to decide whether I wanted to continue carrying that baggage into the next chapter of my life, and I decided it wasn’t worth it. ANON: I have a rule to never come out at work until after a year. I don’t keep it a secret; I just don’t talk about my personal life. This rule of mine was developed while I was still in the military. I served in the military under “don’t ask don’t tell,” so I’m always hesitant to come out at a job at first. Q: Were there policies, programs, practices, or educational training established at your workplace that made you feel comfortable coming out? If so, what were they? Were there any other additional policies, programs, practices, or educational training that could have been implemented at your workplace that would have encouraged you to come out sooner or better facilitated your coming out? KH: Since it was the 1990s when I was outed at work, there were not a lot of policies, programs, or training to help me feel comfortable. It wasn’t until 2015 that I felt comfortable in a new position, with my current employer, about being open about my partner and that part of my life. When I think about it at all these days, “coming out” feels outdated. Coming out always meant sharing my sexuality. How many heterosexual, cis-gendered people talk about their sexuality at work? Or even in their personal lives? Frankly speaking, it feels like this bizarre irony that we are asked to be sincere, to “bring our whole selves to work” these days, and at the same time claim our sexuality in a place where sexual harassment has been prevalent for a long time and where talking about this part of our selves is fraught with challenges. Now, however, with my current employer, a wonderful and growing team (our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team) has brought forth (with the support of our leadership) education and inclusive efforts such as transgender-affirming workplace training, LGBTQ+ pride events, shared employee/spouse benefits like health insurance, and ongoing support through continued learning and community engagement. I think early in my work life that Human Resources could have done much more to include the LGBTQ+ community in discussions and decisions around benefits. But mostly, just helping show support by talking about all of us as people, employees, with our own lives, and investing in learning about our communities, would have helped me feel safer right away. Benefits are based on employment law and then company policy. Once laws helped clarify the legality of rights, policies followed for most workplaces. Few workplaces put policies in place that were ahead of laws. Yet, many still don’t follow even basic discrimination policies. We still have a long way to go. I truly feel grateful for my work environment and the people I work with every day. JS: I first came out in my previous workplace (graduate school). Though the university had safe zone training and LGBTQ+ groups, I felt insecure about coming out until my dissertation work was complete. My advisor was amazing, but we never discussed his feelings about the queer community. With such an uneven power balance in the advisor/student relationship, I feared for my ability to complete my PhD if I came out. I ended up coming out professionally by thanking my partner for his support in the acknowledgements of my dissertation, though by that time, there was little my boss or committee could have done to hinder my completion. It ended up sparking a fantastic conversation with my boss, in which he confided to me that he had queer loved ones. In my situation, general DEI efforts were not enough. I needed to know directly from my superiors that they were allies in order to feel comfortable. ANON: For my current job, there are a bunch of policies in place that made me feel comfortable, but I still wanted to get a good feel for my coworkers before I made a decision like that. Before my current job, some jobs had policies in place and others didn’t. Q: What workplace conditions have you personally observed that may threaten the safety, health, and well-being of LGBTQ+ IH and OEHS professionals? KH: I have had friends lose their jobs as teachers in K-12 education due to their sexuality. I have had friends who have been verbally and emotionally abused by coworkers when it is learned that they are not straight. I have had friends hide their true selves, sitting at the conference table where others share their weekend, their family vacations, and personal information about their spouse—something they might be proud of, like an achievement, or even something difficult like an illness where they are caring for their partner or loved one. It has been excruciating to witness people go without the support of their workplaces, benefit policies, and coworkers in such times and even have to hide what is happening in their lives. It adds immense stress because we don’t want to lose our jobs, our livelihoods, especially during a time when our financial security means so much for our families. JS: Having just completed my degree, I have only limited experience in the workforce. That said, the major things I have noticed are the psychosocial stressors that weigh on an employee when they do not know they are safe to be themselves at work, particularly if they must endure microaggressions from colleagues. ANON: While at my first job, which was in consulting, I had to deal with a lot of different types of personalities, and a large percentage of those people were not fond of the LGBTQ+ community. I personally observed people say harsh things about the community, which in turn made me extremely selective regarding who I told about my sexual orientation.
Despite the positive impacts that being out in the workplace can have, there are still genuine and valid concerns and risks with coming out or even with being perceived as LGBTQ+.
Q: What do you believe still needs to change within IH and OEHS to foster an inclusive profession?
KH: Overall, our country and our profession are in such a better place than when I was younger. I think what helps the most is when leaders “get it” that everyone has value, and that if everyone can’t equally bring their whole self to work, the work environment just doesn’t function at its best. We need to evolve further in awareness that each of us is an individual made up of all kinds of parts. My sexuality (and I’m not even really discussing gender here) is such a personal thing, and I feel like I have had to address a very precious, private part of my individuality that my heterosexual friends just haven’t had to talk about. I would love to just share my day, my life, my family at work without having to preface it or feel fearful of someone’s reaction. Mostly, though, it continues to be important that we share our stories so our allies know how much we need them and so those who still feel hesitant or even afraid to share their personal lives can feel not so alone.
JS: As I mentioned before, general, corporate DEI efforts are not enough. It’s a fantastic start, but what the industry really needs is open allyship of the general worker population. This would not only create a safer and more accepting workplace, but also aid in team building as a sense of trust and mutual respect is established among colleagues.
ANON: In my opinion, the IH and OEHS profession is still a very “old school” career path. A lot of the people who got into this industry have been doing it for forty-plus years and are still very hesitant to work with people who are LGBTQ+. I believe that more exposure to the LGBTQ+ community, whether by training or other means, is needed.
Q: What does “being any ally” mean to you, and how can your colleagues demonstrate their allyship?
KH: Being an ally means seeing me for me, all of me, not just one part. It also means being honest about your own biases (we all have them) and doing your own work to reflect on what you think it means for you to be an ally.
JS: Allyship means openly communicating your support of the queer community in both water-cooler conversations and in setting firm boundaries when coworkers make derogatory comments or jokes. You never know which of your colleagues might be closeted and be heartened by knowing you support them.
ANON: An ally is somebody who accepts your sex orientation and doesn’t make a big deal out of it. They look past your sexual orientation and work with you to accomplish the task at hand.
Q: What advice would you give to a professional in IH or OEHS who is considering coming out at their own workplace?
KH: First, really review your company policies and consider who your ally or allies may be. Talk to your friends and family if you can. Get support in whatever way you can, and find others who can support you, too, like our PR(IH)DE group and other groups that can be there for you. Finally, be confident and courageous in knowing that you are amazing and that bringing your whole self to your work and workplace is a gift. Everyone has their own gifts to bring to the table—bringing one’s whole self helps make sure we bring our full gifts, too.
JS: First and foremost, make sure you are safe. Your financial, psychological, and physical health are not worth risking in an unsupportive environment. Second, don’t feel like you have to blow the closet door open in one fell swoop. It is perfectly acceptable to take your time, testing the waters by coming out to trusted colleagues. Build a supportive group of peers to help you navigate the process of fully coming out.
ANON: The best advice I could give to people coming up in this profession is to be a chameleon. Be able to adapt to all situations that you may run into at work, because there are so many personalities that you will come across in this field, and you have to be able to handle that. Also, establish your boundaries with your employer and colleagues. No one is entitled to know your sexual orientation.
CREATING LGBTQ+-FRIENDLY WORK ENVIRONMENTS Despite the positive impacts that being out in the workplace can have, there are still genuine and valid concerns and risks (both psychological and physical) with coming out or even with being perceived as LGBTQ+. The BCG report found that a staggering 75 percent of LGBTQ+ employees who were surveyed reported having experienced at least one negative interaction at work related to their identify in the past year and 41 percent of respondents experienced more than ten instances. Considering the amount of progress that has been achieved over the past several decades regarding LGBTQ+ rights and workplace inclusion, these numbers may be surprising for some.
Indeed, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation reported that in 2022, of 1,271 companies that participated in the Corporate Equality Index (a nationally recognized benchmarking tool designed to measure policies, practices, and benefits relevant to LGBTQ+ employees), 842 (66 percent) earned a perfect score. Of the participating companies, 97 percent offered explicit gender identity non-discrimination protections, compared to just 5 percent in 2002. It is likely that this finding is largely driven by the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in June 2020 that workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet such policies alone do not deter negative interactions related to sexual orientation or general identity and expression in the workplace. Other control measures need to be instituted in tandem with these policies as part of a holistic strategy. For example, workplace training that educates employees and encourages change at the individual level is also crucial in creating work environments that affirm and are supportive of LGBTQ+ individuals. Research published in Preventive Medicine and the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice has shown that effective gender and sexuality diversity training, as well as ally training in the workplace, are positively associated with enhanced well-being among LGBTQ+ individuals.
In consideration of the interviews conducted for this article and the current research on this topic, we propose that coming out in the workplace can be conceptualized using a systems perspective that embeds LGBTQ+ DEI concerns, considerations, and control measures into an accepted OEHS hazard assessment and control approach. The DEI Effectiveness System Model, which is discussed later in this article, intends to prime the conversation. (See the sidebar below for a detail from the model.)
A PATH FORWARD, TOGETHER Research published in 2020 in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences shows that challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in the workplace, including bias, discrimination, and harassment, have led to significant underrepresentation, particularly within the STEM fields. This underrepresentation may be driven, at least in part, by fears of coming out at work. Through these interviews with OEHS professionals, along with novel research focused on the LGBTQ+ worker, we hope to inspire other OEHS professionals to strive to be allies to their LGBTQ+ peers, foster a more inclusive professional community, and incorporate allyship into their skillsets and practices used in the field to protect the health, safety, and well-being of LGBTQ+ workers.
A. MICHAEL IERARDI (he/him), MS, MES, CIH, is a senior supervising health scientist with Stantec’s ChemRisk group in New York City. He also serves as the current chair of the PR(IH)DE SIG.
ALBERT MOORE (he/him), CIH, CPE, is a PhD student at Virginia Tech in the department of Industrial and Systems Engineering with a research focus on exoskeleton adoption and performance.
ERIC SHWARTSMAN (he/him), is a current MPH student at Rutgers University concentrating in Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.
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The DEI Effectiveness System Model
DEI initiative effectiveness is an emergent property. There is no simplistic “root cause” remedy to bias. The model combines several components. First, consider the central role DEI effectiveness has in reducing the incidence and severity of workplace biases in general. However, residual risks associated with specific biases may persist. For coming-out hazards, potential mediating factors are clustered around further bias exposure and influence the perceived consequences of coming out. Second, consider the impact from management decisions when building, imposing, and maintaining the systems to support their aims. The degree of management’s fidelity between rhetoric and action undergirds DEI effectiveness by the controls selected, layered, and deployed. Do they walk the talk with boots on the ground? Or were the words ephemeral false starts to a safer workplace that shelters the whole person, not just the flesh and bone?
American Public Health Association: “Promoting Transgender and Gender Minority Health through Inclusive Policies and Practices” (November 2016).
American Society of Safety Professionals: “What Does It Mean to Come Out as an LGBTQ Safety Professional?” (June 2021).
Boston Consulting Group: “A New LGBTQ Workforce Has Arrived—Inclusive Cultures Must Follow” (PDF, June 2020).
Emerald Insight: “Sexual Orientation in the Workplace: The Unique Work and Career Experiences of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Workers” in Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management (2004).
Human Rights Campaign Foundation: “Corporate Equality Index 2022” (2022).
Journal of Public Health Management & Practice: “Development and Evaluation of the Ally Sexual and Gender Minority Diversity and Inclusion Training at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” (January 2023).
Legal Information Institute: “Bostock v. Clayton County (June 2020).
NIOSH: “Hierarchy of Controls Applied to NIOSH Total Worker Health.”
Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences: “Measuring and Resolving LGBTQ Disparities in STEM” (October 2020).
Preventive Medicine: “Improving the Wellbeing of LGBTQ+ Employees: Do Workplace Diversity Training and Ally Networks Make a Difference?” (August 2022).
Review of Social Economy: “The Blue of the Rainbow: Queerness and Hiring Discrimination in Blue-Collar Occupations” (January 2022).