LGBT Inclusive Policies in the Workplace: The Hidden Cost of the Glass Closet

February 14, 20178:29 am1810 views

Encouraged by a Michelle Obama quote that “real change comes from having enough comfort to be really honest and say something very uncomfortable”, I decided I would not start this job in the “glass closet” and in the closing stages of my final employment interview with Ogilvy in 2008, I made a bold choice – I openly declared I was married to my lesbian partner and asked for same sex partner benefits in my contract.

While my heart was thumping in my chest, the CEO across from me responded as though I had just told him I was three-handed and brought an added advantage to the role. I had not given him or Ogilvy due credit for their LGBT inclusive views in Hong Kong.

The act of coming out in your professional life happens in a moment, yet the courage to do so can take years.A majority of professionals, certainly in Asia, fear that it will negatively impact their hiring potential and later career progression.

Hong Kong statistics suggest 77 percent of local LGBT employees are in the glass closet (Mahtani & Vernon, 2010). Yet there has been a rush by Fortune 500 companies to ensure their non-discrimination policies cover sexual orientation, increasing from 61 percent in 2002 to 91 percent in 2014, according to the 2014 Human Rights Campaign report Cost of the Closet and the Rewards of Inclusion.

What is this “glass closet”? It’s loosely defined as a virtual device whereby the public can see right in, while the person trapped inside is afraid to actually open the latch and venture out. In practice, colleagues may speculate that an individual is gay, but the person feels trapped in a heterosexual identity they constructed to feel safer and blend in; from which they feel they cannot now escape.

The personal cost to a closeted LGBT professional may be easily imagined by HR professionals. Concealing or even denying a relationship takes a toll on the mental state of the individual, as well as the relationship itself.

The hidden business costs of a non-LGBT friendly workplace are more numerous and significant than many companies realise. The Economist Intelligence Unit identified a “rainbow of benefits” in its 2015 survey of over 1,000 opinion leaders globally (275 of them in Asia). I will focus on four of these financial impacts here.

  1. Productivity

The productivity cost was starkly illuminated by Lord John Browne, former BP CEO, in his 2014 memoir The Glass Closet:

“I want you to go back to your offices and shut the door. Then I want you to remove all vestiges of your family, particularly your spouse. Put the pictures in the drawer and take off your wedding band. You cannot talk about your family and where you went on vacation. And if your spouse is seriously ill, you are afraid to acknowledge your relationship because you are afraid you might lose your job. Do all of that and see how productive you are.”

The Human Rights Commission found in 2014 that employee engagement suffers by up to 30 percent due to unwelcoming environments for LGBT employees, with 30 percent reporting they felt distracted at work and 17 percent avoiding working on certain clients or projects.

The American Civil Liberties Union estimated the cost to the US economy in 2007 at US$1.4billion in lost output resulting from a reduction in LGBT workers productivity. Conversely, 84 percent of business leaders surveyed in 2013 by the Center for Talent Innovation felt being out at work increases productivity and 35 percent of UK LGBT workers reported an upswing in productivity after coming out.

  1. Team Collaboration and Innovation

It is well established that workplace diversity leads to innovation (Kellogg Insight, 2010; Forbes Insight, 2011; Williams Institute 2011). Deloitte (2012) went further to establish that employees who feel included are 42 percent more likely to feel their team collaborates to achieve objectives, and 83 percent more likely to agree their company develops innovative solutions.

We look forward to Sean Pichler’s yet to be published quantitative study from Cal State Fullerton University (2016 abstract) which examined 1,000 firms with LGBT-supportive policies and concluded they outperformed competitors on productivity and profitability.

See: How Should Organisations Deal with Employees’ Lynch Mob Mentality on Social Media?

  1. Talent Retention

Talent management is the top priority on most companies’ radar in improving their LGBT inclusion. It was the top benefit cited in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Pride and Prejudice survey. And for good reason. The Level Playing Field Institute (2007) highlighted that LGBT employees leave their workplace due to unfairness at twice the rate of heterosexual white males.

Armstrong (2010) showed lower voluntary turnover levels in LGBT inclusive environments. Close to 10 percent of LGBT people report leaving a job specifically because they were made to feel unwelcome, while one in five LGBT people report looking for other employment for the same reason (Human Rights Campaign, 2014).

  1. Job Satisfaction

Many studies have described a positive link between LGBT inclusive policies and increased job satisfaction (Button, 2001; Munoz, 2005; Ragins, Singh and Cornwell, 2007). More recently, Hewlett and Sumberg (2011) showed that US employees who are more open about their sexual orientation, at companies which have non-discrimination policies in place, are 25 percent more likely to be satisfied with their rate of promotion and 31percent less likely to feel stalled in their careers.

Fortune 500 companies have embraced LGBT inclusiveness as a necessity to enhance financial performance. C-suite leadership – more confident with seniority, more open to risk taking and, in Asia, often expatriates from countries where same sex marriage is already legal – tend to lead the call for LGBT inclusive corporate environments. There is relatively lower risk for them given their higher profile and career security.

At the opposite end, generational change is driving greater inclusiveness. Young talent entering the workforce have more progressive views on the importance of LGBT diversity. A 2016 report by the Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission found that 92 percent of 18-24 year old adults now agree there should be legal protection for LGBT employees.

Understanding how HR policies facilitate LGBT inclusion can also contribute to the bottom line, is a key to HR being a valued business unit.


American Civil Liberties Union (2007), Working in the Shadows: Ending Employment Discrimination for LGBT Americans

Armstrong, C. et al. (2010) The Impact of diversity and equality management on firm performance: Beyond high performance work systems, Human Resource Management

Badgett,  M.V. Lee, Durso, L. E., Kastanis, A. and Mallory, C., (2013), The Business Impact ofLGBT-Supportive Workplace Policies, The Williams Institute

Browne, J. (2014), The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out is Good Business

Button, S.B. (2001). Organizational efforts to affirm sexual diversity: A cross-level examination. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 17-28

Centre for Talent Innovation (2013), The Power of Out 2.0: LGBT in the Workplace

Deloitte and the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (2012), Waiter, is that Inclusion in my Soup?

Economist Intelligence Unit (2015), Pride and Prejudice. Attitudes and Opinions Toward LGBT Inclusion in the Workplace

Fidas, D., Cooper, L., The Cost of the Closet and the Rewards of Inclusion (2014), Human Rights Campaign Foundation

Forbes Insight (2011), Global Diversity &Inclusion,: Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce

Hewlett, S.A., &Sumberg, K. (2011, June). The power of out. Center for Work-Life Policy

Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission (2016), Report on Study on Legislation against Discrimination on the Grounds of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status

Kellogg Insight (2010), Better Decisions Through Diversity

Level Playing Field Institute (2007), The Cost of Employee Turnover Due Solely to Unfairness in the Workplace

Mahtani, S., & Vernon, K., (2010), Creating Inclusive Workplaces for LGBT Employees, Community Business

Miller, J., Parker, L., (2015), Open for Business, The Economic and Business Case for Global LGBT Inclusion

Munoz, C.S. (2005). A multi-level examination of career barriers for sexual minority employees. Unpublished doctoral dissertation.

Pichler, S., Blazovich, J., Cook, K., Huston, J., Strawser, W., (2016), Do LGBT-supportive Corporate Policies Enhance Firm Performance?

Ragins, B.R, Singh, R., & Cornwell, J.M. (2007). Making the invisible visible: Fear and disclosure of sexual orientation at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 1103-1118.

Sears, B., & Mallory, C. (2011). Economic motives for adopting LGBT-related workplace policies

Williams Institute (2011), Economic Motives for Adopting LGBT-Related Workplace Policies


Author credit: Marion McDonald is Chief Strategy Officer for Asia Pacific at Ogilvy Public Relations. She founded Ogilvy Pride Hong Kong, the agency’s first LGBT network in Asia, and leads APAC Diversity and Inclusion strategy. Marion actively promotes LGBT inclusion benefits in business through her research, media interviews, Twitter account (@thatmarion) and profiling LGBT business leaders in Asia on She has also mentored students through the Queer Straight Alliance program at Hong Kong University for six years.


Content rights: The views expressed in this piece are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the publication’s view on the subject. This article is not edited for reference checks by HR in Asia and in case of plagiarism content, the author is solely responsible. The author is not remunerated for this guest contribution.

Also read: Japanese Firm Rakuten Extends Spouses’ Benefits Available to Same-Sex Partners

Feature image credit: The Huffington Post

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