Work Fierce, Part III: Queering Your Career

By Liz Massey, December 2015 Issue.

Just listening to the recruiting manager for customer care at the locally headquartered web hosting company, GoDaddy, it is abundantly clear just how much the corporate climate has shifted for LGBT employees in the past two decades.

“Talent is talent, regardless of your race, gender or sexual orientation,” Lamar Daniels explained, when asked why GoDaddy emphasized diversity initiatives, including those for its LGBT employees. “Being diverse is the right thing to do and it’s good for business ... And being a gay man of color, I feel I need to pay it forward.”

Although workplace discrimination is legal in 29 states on the basis of sexual orientation and in 32 states based upon gender identity, in some ways Corporate America has outpaced government entities in recognizing and valuing LGBT employees. Through the simple acts of coming out and building a support network in the office, many LGBT professionals are finding who they are to be a positive career asset, rather than something they have to leave behind when they talk around the water cooler with colleagues.

It Pays To Be Out

The idea of one’s openly queer status being a plus in one’s job is admittedly a new phenomenon. Currently, nearly half of all LGBT workers still report being in the closet at the office. However, a growing body of research indicates that that strategy can have a negative impact both on well-being and vocational prospects.

In 2007, a University of Wisconsin study found a strong relationship between fear of the consequences of being open about one’s sexual identity at work and a variety of physical stress-related symptoms. Closeted employees in unfriendly work environments reported in a 2010 Human Rights Campaign survey being more depressed, distracted and exhausted than those who were out. And the stress of the closet also influences employee engagement – those who are not out are 40 percent less likely to trust their employers, and nearly three-quarters of them (73 percent) said they were likely to leave their current company in the next three years.

According to Ryker Knapp, a team lead for the credit collections team at PayPal’s operations in Chandler, his experience as an openly heterosexual transman has helped coworkers see him and his work performance in a positive light.

“I think everyone should be honest, proud and confident in who they are,” Knapp said. “It will make you stand out amongst your peers and shows your strength and integrity.”

Daniels said that GoDaddy offered a host of LGBT-supportive benefits – ranging from gender transition medical coverage to new-parent leave – as part of its commitment to encourage employees to feel “free to be whoever they are.”

“If someone chooses to live their authentic self at work, it’s absolutely embraced,” he said. “Not only does it strengthen the team relationship, but our employees can be confident that GoDaddy has their back.”

Lamar Daniels. Photo courtesy of Go Daddy.

Finding Strength In Numbers

Another place LGBT employees are leveraging their orientation or identity in service of their careers is in employee resource groups (ERGs) specifically aimed at supporting them.

Daniels (pictured above), who served as vice president of the GoDaddy United group when it was formed several years ago, explained that the group functioned as an all-inclusive internal networking group, and that GoDaddy discussed the existence of the group when recruiting at Pride events in markets, including Phoenix, that have a connection to the company.

“I feel the impact [of GoDaddy United] is to have a sense of inclusion and to feel valued,” he said. “If you provide that to your employees, they will build a career with us.”

Ryker Knapp. Photo by Fernando Hernández.

Similarly, Knapp (pictured right) became involved with PayPal’s ERG, PayPal Pride, in January, and quickly rose to the office of co-captain of the group. According to Knapp, the group advises company leadership on adjusting policies and practices to promote greater inclusion, and offers professional development sessions as well as mentoring and volunteer opportunities.

Ultimately, Knapp said, it was his desire to make his workplace friendly to all employees drove his desire to get involved.

“I wanted to be involved with PayPal Pride because I wanted to make a difference for all PayPal LGBTQ employees,” he said. “I think it is vital to always have a sense of community and a safe place no matter your differences, and PayPal Pride provides exactly that.”

Increasingly, corporations are recognizing the benefits of ERGs beyond boosting employee morale. Glenn Llopis, writing in Forbes in 2012, said such groups were increasingly being expected to expand their role beyond that of a social network into a think tank that helped the company achieve success in core business functions.

“[ERGs] will allow the voices of employees to be heard and the power of diverse thinking to influence the new ground rules that will define the workplace of the future, its workforce, clients and customers,” he wrote.

Another area in which ERGs for queer employees are advancing workplace equality is in the way that they can educate and unify straight allies. The Center for Talent Innovation, in a 2011 report on best practices in LGBT hiring in the financial industry entitled “Out on the Street,” noted that ally participation in LGBT activities, especially by leaders, “confirms for all employees that there are no artificial barriers to success in the organization.”

Building The “Good Old Gays” Network

The evolving role of ERGs in boosting LGBT career success illustrates the importance of mutually beneficial networks in which one’s sexual orientation or gender identity is not viewed as a “problem.” The CTI report discussed why this dynamic exists.

“The presence or absence of a social network at work has long been recognized as critical to building a successful career,” the report’s authors asserted. “For all diverse employees, especially LGBT people, the goal should be to gain access to these existing networks, but also to build networks of their own.”

Knapp said his participation in PayPal Pride has given him access to company leaders, and a forum for demonstrating what he’s capable of.

“I’m building stronger leadership skills and capabilities, while also getting more exposure and networking opportunities with many executives within the organization – not only in Arizona, but around the world,” he said.

On a similar note, Daniels said recruiters within his organization view participation in an ERG, or leadership in an outside LGBT community group, positively, if the activities related directly to the type of job a candidate was applying for.

“Leadership is leadership,” Daniels said. “If you display the skills listed on your resume, and then can articulate them with specific, relevant examples during the interview process, then that leadership strength will come through.”

As the battlefront in LGBT equality shifts from the marriage altar to the office, encouraging attitudes among hiring managers seem to be on the upswing. A survey of 2,500 employers published in a 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review revealed that LGBT employees were seen as more ambitious, committed and willing to go the extra mile – not to mention better educated – compared with their straight counterparts.

That trend may be what prompted Knapp to advise his LGBT peers to rise above the slights of a co-worker who might treat them differently whenever possible.

“Always take the high road,” he said. “That character trait will shine through, and the right person will see it. Use your individuality to your advantage – being different makes you stand out, and when you stand out, you get recognized.”

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