7 Things NEVER to Say to LGBT Coworkers

Do you have a coworker who just recently came out of the closet? Here's what leading experts from PwC and GLSEN suggest you SHOULDN'T say.

LGBT: What Not To SayFor most, coming out at work is not an easy task. You can’t be sure how your company or peers will respond to your revelation. And despite recent reports that the workplace is growing increasingly accepting to LGBT employees, people often don’t know how to welcome a colleague who recently came out of the closet.

PricewaterhouseCoopers executive Stephanie Peel’s history is a corporate America coming-out success story. When she came out professionally more than a dozen years ago, she was welcomed by her colleagues. “I came out personally in 1997 and came out professionally in 1999. Fortunately, I never heard anything not positive,” says Peel.

PricewaterhouseCoopers is No. 1 on The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list and No. 6 on the Top 10 Companies for LGBT Employees. Peel serves on the company’s GLBT Partner Advisory Board, which consists of 11 leaders in the firm who are LGBT and provides guidance to the management committee to help further advance initiatives and activities.

“I often tell people who ask me about this [that] it’s not just about what you can’t say or shouldn’t say, because sometimes I find that colleagues feel stymied in that they shouldn’t say anything at all. There is a lot of room for the things you can say to give clues to people that you are inclusive and culturally sensitive,” warns Peel.

Watch this video from Out & Equal Workplace Project for more on how coming out can enhance employee engagement:

Things NOT to Say to Your LGBT Colleagues

Here’s what GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), the Out & Equal Workplace Project, and Peel suggest:

No. 1: “I suspected you were gay.”
Although it is a common response, it’s insensitive and plays into stereotypes.

No. 2: “I’m sorry.”
Why should you apologize for a colleague’s orientation? This implies judgment and can make the situation more difficult. Would you apologize for a person’s ethnicity or gender?

No. 3: “Why did you tell me that?”
It’s important for people to bring their “whole selves” to work, and coming out of the closet is certainly a part of who one is. “The notion of leaving a big part of your self at home and walking into work is like walking around with two types of shoes on,” says Selisse Berry, founding executive director of Out & Equal, an advocacy organization that provides services to companies, human-resource professionals, employee-resource groups and individuals.

No. 4: “Which bathroom do you use?”
Transgender people often are asked what gender they are. Such questions are inappropriate, warns Out & Equal. It is important to remember that gender identity is becoming an increasingly sensitive subject.

No. 5: “We are not close enough for you to share that information with me.”
Not all employees are interested in their coworkers’ personal lives. If you feel a colleague may have shared too much information, you can simply say, “Thank you for telling me that,” says Peel.

No. 6: Referring to coworkers as “she-male.”
There has been a lot of uproar these days over this phrase. Transgender employees often are the brunt of culturally insensitive jokes and comments.

No. 7: “What do you like to do in bed?”
Sexual questions and comments are always off-limits. Not only do you run the risk of offending a colleague, you are also teetering the line of sexual harassment. It’s important not to be confused between trying to understand someone’s personal life and inappropriate sexual harassment, warns Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Arcus Foundation and founder of GLSEN.

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  • Missing is there’s still an expectation that everyone is either sexually involved or interested in dating. It’s one thing if you’re not sharing because you’re uncomfortable, and another if you’re happy being abstinent. Social websites and smartphones often facilitate over sharing personal information, and coercing a coworker into explaining their sexual orientation or dating status is also highly insensitive and plays on stereotypes. Not to mention, many people at work are lying about their acceptance, and I’ve even seen people misrepresent their sexual orientation to appear more diverse in an organization that superficially values diversity. There’s also difficulty with less common sexual orientation types. If someone volunteers, then I’ll talk to them and support them at all times, but for myself, articulating my sexual orientation at work would be pointlessly annoying. I accept everyone and I don’t need back pats.

    • I am lesbian. I was approached at work for me to talk about my personal life after this co worker told me a bit about her life. I am part of a butch-femme relationship and I was trying to explain it, for some unknown reason to this person. I felt a turning or knot in the pit of my stomach.. But yet I unfortunately proceeded. I also, being a visual person, showed a “random photograph”… Not of my partner (of 10 years!) but of a random butch woman. It was a stunning photo of this woman (in my opinion). She did not have a shirt on, but she was “covered up” by her hands. I thought it showed her masculinity, without being “offensive” to herself or anyone! To me it’s the same as a new mom breastfeeding her baby in public! I don’t particularly agree with this practice , but I would run to the police and tell them I’m offended, I just don’t look! Well, long story short.. this person went to HR and filed sexual harassment

  • My personal favorite, closely related to # 7: “Which role do you play in your relationships — male or female?”

  • The other question that bothers me is when people start asking which other co-workers are gay. It is really nobody else’s business.

  • I don’t understand why it is not okay to tell someone, “We are not close enough for you to share that with me” If I didn’t ask you if you are gay or if the discussion didn’t come up, why do you think it is okay to tell me. I think it is personal and you should keep it to yourself. I don’t need to know nor want to know.

    • Luke Visconti

      We get comments like this from time to time. I would hate to work around a stifling little tyrant who would deny the opportunity for others to simply relate who their families are and who they love. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • Mina,
      People share information about their families all the time whether they are straight or gay. I am a college professor. As a PhD student I taught classes. Once, I was there on the first day when the professor was absent. She told me to tell the students about her. Some of the things she wanted me to tell them was that she was married and had a wonderful husband and two children ages fifteen and eight. Yet, when gay people tell colleagues and friends about their families it’s taken as an imposition. Why?
      Now, as a professor, I tell my students on the first day about myself and my wonderful wife of seventeen years. IIf others are comfortable and happy to talk about their families, why shouldn’t we talk about ours and our lives with the same comfort?
      How would you feel if I told you I don’t want to hear about your spouse needing to pick you up at 2 or your child being sick? What if every time you mentioned your spouse or significant other I change the subject, interrupt you, turn my head, turn down my nose or said, “I don’t need to know nor want to know.”

  • Well, Luke, you shut down THAT conversation. I agree with u but calling someone a name cause they dont want to hear personal info from their coworkers doesnt help change anything

    • Luke Visconti

      Sometimes conversations need to be shut down—immediately. I’ve worked in a lot of places: warehouses, restaurants, the military, publishing companies, my own company. In every single place, almost everyone wanted to talk about their families. Some people are more private than others, but love is the driving force behind a normal person’s existence. Who you love, your family—this is the grounding of the human psyche. In that light, “tolerance” is a four-letter word. But this person wasn’t even tolerant! How do you dismiss the very essence of who a person is? What destruction is wrecked upon the team spirit of the workplace by people like this? Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Luke, I enjoy the aggressive response and am excited to see it among the usual pandering to hegemonic ideas and cultural inertia. That being said I would like to caution you against throwing the word “normal” around. Normal is a dangerous cultural idea that doesn’t make much sense on its face, and kills with its ideas. If you insist upon using the word then I would like to oblige you to clarify who you are referring to when you use the phrase, “normal person.”

        • Luke Visconti

          In this context, “normal” refers to people who do not have antisocial or narcissistic traits or disorders. People with those issues cannot by their nature care about anyone but themselves. Have you ever noticed that, while the haters have clear declarations, people on “our side” are often bogged down in pedantic discussions of semantic nuances, almost exclusively with people who agree with us? Whew. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

          • With all due respect Mx. Visconti, I find it a little harsh to lump antisocialites and narcissists together. Some people are antisocial because they don’t know how to fit in and are pushed away every time they try, so they don’t try anymore, but they still care. I remember being antisocial because I didn’t fit in and other people’s negativity, but I still cared about what they had to say and what they did. Antisociality is not simply a matter of hating people, it is a struggle with oneself to be a part of society. Please note however, I am not saying this out of some form of frustration or being upset, but as a sort of constructive criticism.

          • Luke Visconti

            I understand your point—I was referring to people who are actively not interested in following societal norms, not to people who have trouble fitting in. I’ll try to be more clear in the future. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

          • Thank you for clarifying, and I would like to note that I understood what you were saying, but there are people who wouldn’t have and would have started an argument. I grew up around arguing, and I don’t like it. On another note, I’m always up for a peaceful debate if you’re ever interested.

  • Strange. I enjoy hearing about gay coworkers’ spouse & children. It reminds me how alike we are. Love can unite. When she talks I hear not about the gaylady she lives it&the lesbian lovemaking, but I listen to the similarities&the love in her voice when she describes the love of her life going on 10yrs now&their children they obviously worked harder to get than I did to make mine. Love can help us all understand, its about love not what type of sex.

    • Joseph Morgan

      Gretchen, your comment says a lot about you, and it is good. If people focused more on finding and celebrating how everyone is alike, where the common ground is, we wouldn’t need to worry so much about the differences. Yes, it is important to enjoy and celebrate difference–if everyone were the same the world would be intolerably boring. But acceptance, inclusion, lack of violence, a comfortable workplace, political equality, all of these things come when we see how much we have in common.

      I have seen so many times where people who, in theory, disliked the whole idea of LGBT people seemed to soften and change their feelings once they actually got to know someone who was in one or more of the the LGBT categories. Even President Obama was against same-gender marriage until he spent time with families where the parents were the same gender. He saw how much like his own family they were, and came out in favor of same-sex marriage. (In an election year, despite the risk to his campaign–because he is a man of character.)

      So please, keep on being who you are, and I hope you are also an example to others.

  • I have a Bi sexual employee at work. I didn’t know for sure if he was or wasn’t I only heard rumors. Unfortunately, some other employees like to make rude jokes in the area of sexual orientation. So I asked this young man if he was Bisexual. He answered yes he is. I only asked so I could be better prepared for any discrimination or harassment he may face from other coworkers. Was I wrong to ask? He didn’t seem upset at my asking him this..

    • David, it is never a bad thing to clear up rumors and such; it tends to help to know whether they are true or not. I believe it was the right thing to do, but I’m curious as to how you phrased it when you asked; delivery is everything.

    • Did you think you were going to sneak this in at 1:28am? What were you awake thinking about? Were you drunk? Look in the mirror – you’re gay. Get some help, stop hating yourself. In the meantime, take your hate somewhere else. Your IP address is

  • I am a lesbian. Not out at work. There is an older woman at work who is also lesbian and out at work. She loves making it known that she’s a lesbian. I’ve told her in the past that I do not want my private life discussed at work and that I am not out. She takes every opportunity to bring up GLBT conversations with me if we are alone or sometimes even if we are with other people – despite the fact I’ve told her I do not discuss my private life at work. She is extremely immature for a woman in her late fifties and once in the cafeteria was telling a story with a lot of young males and females around about how some guy liked her in her younger years but that she “ran for the bushes”. She then looked at me but I was actually so embarassed for her I just didn’t even respond or look at her. She always tries to catch my eye, find a reason to come into my office and sends me private emails (nothing threatening – she is just trying to be friends) but I do not like her she makes me extremely uncomfortable. I CANNOT go to HR nor do I want to. I just want her to leave me alone. She thinks we’re friends simply because we’re both lesbians. I made the mistake of telling her when we went over another lesbian worker’s house for dinner. My error. I do not want to be unkind to her but I can’t stand her and she’s always commenting on my social media, etc. I have a feeling she likes me and again, it makes me uncomfortable…

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