Editor's note: Brian McNaught is a diversity consultant who has educated others on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues for nearly 40 years through books, DVDs, Web guides, and other resources.
(CNN) -- The CFO of a major bank pulled me aside awhile ago to ask my advice on how she should talk to a favorite, closeted, gay senior manager about his homosexuality. The secret he kept made it difficult for her to speak with him comfortably about their outside lives on things such as weekend and holiday plans.
I suggested that she sit with him privately, and say, with confidence and warmth, "You know, Tom, we've been friends for some time, and I've shared a good deal about myself and my family with you, but I feel I know very little about you. Is there anything that I'm doing that makes it difficult for you to talk with me?" She happily reported to me on my return visit that all went very well. He came out to her with relief and gratitude, but chose not to come out further to his peers.
That same day, as it happened, Tom was in the diversity training seminar I was giving for senior executives about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues. In the session, I asked the executives to vote on two questions to assess the environment for gay people. In response to the first query, they overwhelmingly responded that the environment at work was "very welcoming" to gay people. When I asked them what advice they would give co-workers, the majority responded that a gay colleague should "come out to everyone."
I commented to the group that though the bank had all the right policies, only three people out of the 800 in my sessions there had come out in the workshop. Statistically, as many as 40 of them could have been gay or lesbian. "If this place is considered 'safe,' why aren't more people out?" I asked. At the end of the session, as attendees began to depart, Tom jumped up and asked everyone to please sit back down. "There's something I'd like to share with you," he said.
The recent findings of the Center for Work-Life Policy -- that about half of the college-educated, gay and lesbian workforce is still in the closet -- are noteworthy for several reasons.
For one thing, they provide data that are difficult to secure (corporations generally don't inquire whether their employees are gay), but they also make it easier to build the case for keen corporate focus on the high numbers of their closeted employees. This is important, especially since the study showed that 40% of closeted gay employees are less likely to trust their employer than those gay employees who are out. That lack of trust comes into play in their productivity.
Most gay people who stay in the closet at work fear what will happen to them if they come out. That fear of being overlooked for promotions and being ostracized by their peers is often not justified, but it nevertheless takes a toll on their ability to put themselves 100% into their jobs.
They have to completely separate their home life from their work life, which means no personal phone calls that can be overheard or e-mails that can be read, no pictures of loved ones on the desk, and no honest personal dialogue with co-workers, clients, or customers. "Are you married and do you have kids?"
According to the study, 73% of closeted employees are likely to change jobs in the next three years. Even in a time of high unemployment, corporations are in a constant war for talent. They know that if they want to attract and retain the best and brightest people, they need to create a workplace in which all employees feel safe and valued. This is true whether their offices are in New York or in Singapore.
Most gay and lesbian people will come out when they feel that doing so is not only a positive career move, but a safe personal one. Most Fortune 500 companies have sought to address the issue by adding sexual orientation to their non-discrimination policies. Many of them offer domestic partner benefits, fund a gay Employee Resource Group, and sometimes even take public stands on behalf of their gay and lesbian employees. But as was true with my aforementioned bank client, these actions are often not enough to coax many talented gay people out of the closet.
Still, there is some big news contained in the center's study: 48% of well-educated gay men and women may still be closeted, but 52% are now openly gay, including those on Wall Street. Having spent nearly 40 years addressing this issue through my work, I can tell you it's big progress. But we're not done here. Corporations still need to stay focused on those employees who still fear coming out. It's a business issue.
What more can companies do? They must proactively work to create a workplace culture that matches their workplace policies. They have to get their "music" in sync with their "words." The workplace environment is created not by policies but by the attitudes and behaviors of mid-level managers and co-workers.
If colleagues don't express positive feelings about gay issues, especially by speaking out against unwelcoming comments, their gay and lesbian co-workers will stay in the closet. Just like heterosexual employees, gay employees want to be asked about their weekend plans and about the person in the photo on their desk. They want to trust they have allies who will have their back even when they're not present.
All employees, from the CEO to the support staff, must be educated on the issue with comprehensive diversity training that focuses solely on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues. Ignorance is the parent of fear. Anyone who has traveled to a foreign country without knowing the language understands how anxiety goes up in direct proportion to the lack of familiarity.
Despite all of the good policies on gay workplace issues, many workers don't know the "foreign language" of homosexuality. It is a subject that was not discussed in their schools, churches or homes. As a result, they have anxiety. If we don't know what words to use--sexual "orientation" or "preference" (it's orientation); "partner" or "roommate" (it's partner) -- we generally choose to remain silent. And when you're gay and looking for cues that it's okay to come out, silence is often interpreted as hostility or discomfort.
After Tom came out to his executive colleagues in my diversity seminar, I put my arm around him, thanked him, and told the audience that they had just been given a great gift. Having people put a face on the issue lowers the anxiety of others. All of the other senior managers then came forward to thank and congratulate Tom on coming out -- for moving from the 48% group into the happier, more productive 52% group.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brian McNaught.