Straight Jobs, Gay Lives: Sexual Orientation and Career Decision Making

by Mark Brostoff

Gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT) students preparing for entry into the workforce often find themselves faced with additional career planning challenges related to their sexual orientation. Time spent at college is typically supportive, with active GLBT student groups and university-backed, non-discrimination policies. On the other hand, the workplace and the geographic location of employment can be quite different in terms of support for and tolerance of gay and lesbian employees. Gay and lesbian job seekers must be encouraged to expand their research to include not only an evaluation of the company culture and the benefits package (e.g., the inclusion of same-sex domestic partner benefits), but also the presence of gay and lesbian employee support groups and an understanding of the local/state employment non-discrimination laws. There are no hard and fast rules for gay/lesbian students in the job search; each decision and situation must be considered on its own terms.

When to Come Out?

Coming out is a personal decision. For many people, sexual orientation is such an integral part of their identity that to remain closeted in the workplace would seem false. Others, however, prefer to distance their personal and professional lives, only sharing personal information with close friends. In the workplace, hiding one’s sexual identity could lead to feelings of lowered self-esteem and frustration at leading a dual life; on the other hand, being openly gay could lead to harassment or even the loss of one’s job. There is no “right” answer.

Self-assessment is a good tool to help determine an individual’s “comfort” level. The job-seeker should be encouraged to evaluate their level of involvement within the gay community. For example, are most of their friends and support network gay-connected? Have they already experienced coming-out to their current co-workers or family? The strength of identification and level of past commitment within the gay community can be a deciding factor in choosing an employer and whether to come out on the resume. How to “energize” oneself outside the workplace is another important question for the gay job-seeker. One must consider the value of one’s hobbies or outside interests away from work. Gay job-seekers need to evaluate potential limitations faced in finding individuals of the same sexual orientation in their new surroundings who share these interests. Coming out is a continual process for the gay or lesbian employee and no matter how often one “outs” oneself, they may find it not only repetitive, but also frustrating, if they are not well prepared.

Company Research

Gay job-seekers must focus more attention on company research than any other group of candidates. The review of websites (e.g., Human Rights Campaign at http://www.hrc.org) to determine an organization’s commitment to diversity and sexual orientation can be time consuming, but is a vital step in the process of evaluating a company for the “right fit”.

  • Does the firm have a GLBT employee group?
  • What protected groups are listed in the non-discrimination policy?
  • Do they offer domestic partnership benefits?

The job search must also include gathering information to reach a thorough understanding of state and city employment and housing discrimination laws.

  • Does the municipality have laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (which sets the general tone of acceptance, or at least tolerance)?
  • Does the region have gay or lesbian support groups?

This information is invaluable for determining the “risk” associated with relocating to the firm’s location as well as determining the networking opportunities that can provide guidance for the newly arrived GLBT employee.

Resume Writing – How Much to Include?

Should gay-related activities be included on the resume? To answer this question, the job-seeker must consider their likely audience and determine ahead of time if they are comfortable with being out in their resume. The skills one develops as a result of participation in gay organizations are likely to be of interest to many employers. Although the affiliation in which the skills have been developed may be viewed with less enthusiasm by some, the accomplishments are important to the overall evaluation of the candidate.

As with any potentially controversial group affiliation, such as political or religious activities, the student will want to weigh the pros and cons of including such information. Some recruiters, even gay ones, have said such information can be extraneous, unless one stresses the skills and achievements over the social activities. While highlighting skills, downplay the nature of the organization in which they were developed. One option is to list the organization as “Anti-Discrimination Group,” and then document the skills and accomplishments from this experience.

Regardless of which strategy is used on the resume, the student will still need to be prepared for questions about these activities and affiliations during an interview.

Interviewing Strategies

Depending on the strategies used to present gay-related activities on the resume, the interviewer may have some indications that the interviewee is bisexual, gay or lesbian. If that is the case, the job-seeker should be prepared to talk about how these experiences have developed desirable leadership, communication and interpersonal skills. The interviewee must not be caught off guard in the interview and should not appear embarrassed about the GLBT activity or affiliation. The gay job-seeker would be well advised to conduct a mock interview with a career counselor in order to practice how to effectively deflect the interview away from an interrogation on the “gay” affiliation and back to focusing on qualifications, experiences and diversity.

Coming Out On the Job

Coming out to a potential supervisor and coworkers might seem even more intimidating than coming out during the interview process; after all, the job-seeker will have to spend a majority of time with coworkers. Look for clues around the office, such as same-gender pictures or information on employee bulletin boards that might hint at the office climate. Is the work group diverse in other ways? In general, “younger” companies tend to be more comfortable with diversity and, even though it is hard to generalize, certain industries (e.g., software, airlines) and certain geographic locations (e.g., San Francisco) are known for being gay-friendly.

Final Thoughts

No matter how one decides about coming out during the job search, it is imperative for the gay or lesbian job-seeker to conduct a comprehensive review of the company, its geographic location, and the employment laws of the state and local municipality. The laws against employment and workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity are limited, and if not specifically stated, it may be perfectly legal for potential employers to ask a job-seeker if they are gay, and then hire or fire them based on the answer.

The NCDA workshop under this title (Presentation #303 – Saturday, July 8, 2006 at 10:30 a.m.) will go into details on how to counsel gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students as they prepare for a job/career search.

Mark J. Brostoff, MHA, is Associate Director of Undergraduate Career Services at Indiana University, Kelley School of Business, in Bloomington, Indiana. Mark was awarded the 2006 Excellence Award for Advancement of the Profession by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) and the 2004 John Deere Advancing Diversity Award for his work on gay and lesbian career planning issues. In addition to his career services work, he teaches courses in health care marketing and emergency management for the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Mark is a retired Naval Commander, Medical Service Corps and was the first male co-host of BloomingOUT, the only Indiana news and public affairs radio show dedicated to the issues and events of the gay community. He can be reached at: mbrostof@indiana.edu

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