Tolerance from the Top Down: What Coming Out Taught Me About My Company

I was nearly incapacitated the first time I brought my boyfriend to a work event. It was the fall of 2009, and it had only been a few months since I came out as a gay man. With every handshake, every subtle glance, I wondered: Am I being judged? What do they really think? How will this introduction impact my business with them?

For some it was difficult to understand, but over time those close to me accepted and have come to celebrate my identity. Although I was nervous at those initial work events, many people in my business world learned of this life decision, allowing me to be comfortable having my partner as a traveling companion and familiar addition to work dinners and social events.

As the CEO, I knew my business could handle my coming out, simply because I set the tone for acceptance. As the Chief Executive, I am charged with determining the direction of my company, our identity, culture, and values. I work hard to create a corporate culture that embraces differences and promotes everyone's uniqueness.

As I examined my personal coming out situation, this responsibility led me to ask some difficult questions: If I wasn't the CEO of my own company, would I have felt comfortable coming out at work as a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered person? Would an employee at my company be comfortable coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender? Most importantly, what can LGBT executives do better to welcome young LGBT business executives to our ranks, and how can we better create an environment of respect for our LGBT employees in the workforce?

Unfortunately and despite being out in their personal lives, many LGBT professionals are not out at work. They live with the fear that their careers may be compromised, or they might be exposed to discrimination, simply for being true to themselves.

This fear is justified. Over 40 percent of LGBT employees say they have been harassed, passed over for a promotion, or pressured to quit as a result of their sexual identity. And according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender people are four times as likely to earn under $10,000 per year and twice as likely to be unemployed as a typical American.

It is imperative that executives and business owners, particularly those who are part of the LGBT community, conscientiously create an LBGT-friendly environment in corporate America. For that to happen, it is incumbent upon all executives, but especially LGBT executives to lead with these three key actions:

Respect your employees, even if your beliefs differ. The decision to come out at work is a very important and personal one. Ensure you respect your employees' privacy and allow them to share their identity on their terms. Most importantly, respect their views even if you do not personally agree with them.

Educate your employees. Unknowns create an environment of insecurity. Inform your team on the importance of treating one another with respect using both your words and your actions. Be accessible to your employees if they have questions. Adopt a zero tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind including hateful speech, bullying or any other disrespectful behavior. Naturally, this applies equally to a person's sexual orientation and religious beliefs.

Mentor your employees. Create a culture of growth and advancement by pairing young employees with those who are more experienced to facilitate the transfer of knowledge, share new ideas, and build connections between all levels of your organization. Unify your employees in the shared vision for the success of your business.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple and an out gay man, said, "I don't consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I've benefited from the sacrifices of others." It's time that every executive, regardless of sexual orientation, becomes a champion for workplace equality. The future of our companies and the evolving identity of corporate America depend upon it.