When Eric Berntson was still closeted, his coworkers would remark that he was a very busy person. This was at a former job, and he says that he would often relay different versions of his social life to different colleagues because he was too scared to say he had gone to a gay bar or hung out with a same-sex romantic partner. Berntson was so concerned about putting up a front for coworkers that he became known as the “guy who smiled too much.” But being that person took a toll. He says that he can’t believe the number of lies he told about himself during his two years there. 

Eric Berntson,
Senior Director of Sales at Indeed

Today, Berntson is the senior director of sales for Indeed.com, and he’s happily out at work. But the time he spent at his former job terrified that coworkers would discover his personal life was exhausting, he recalls. “I thought that if I just continued forward and focused on my job, it would go away,” he says. “That was terrible thinking. It was toxic. It made me angrier. It drove me into the ground.”

This year marks the 35th National Coming Out Day, an annual observance that champions the power of LGBTQ+ visibility. But while companies like Indeed believe that acceptance and inclusion contribute to work environments where everyone can thrive, research shows that many queer and transgender people are still unable to be their most authentic selves in the workplace. A 2021 Indeed survey found that 32% of LGTBQ+ respondents are closeted at work, though interestingly 72% came out at work within the past three years and 39% came out after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, “suggesting that recent civil rights progress may be helping individuals feel more protected,” the report notes. However, a 2019 report from Glassdoor found that 47% of LGTBQ+ respondents felt coming out could hurt their careers. These fears are not imagined: The same survey found that more than three in five employees (61%) have witnessed identity-based discrimination in the workplace, whether on the basis of LGBTQ+ identity, age, or race.

Personal image of Eric Berntson

​​Coming out at work is still incredibly nuanced — and oftentimes difficult — but many LGBTQ+ people who have done it say their overall well-being and confidence has improved. The key for managers is cultivating supportive environments where LGBTQ+ people feel safe and welcome so that workers can make that decision when the time is right for them. Creating those spaces can include instituting nondiscrimination protections for workplaces that don’t already have those policies in place, offering insurance and family leave policies that fully meet the needs of LGBTQ+ individuals and creating inclusive employee resource groups so LGBTQ+ workers can find community and connection.

In his own case, Berntson says that there were powerful benefits to taking the leap of coming out in the workplace. His confidence improved when he was able to be himself on the job — no longer, for example, having to use gender-neutral pronouns to refer to significant others. “If I was doing any kind of public speaking, I would be shaking and stuttering through presentations,” he says of when he first started at Indeed. “Now I love getting up in front of people. I thrive in it, and I can be clear, well-spoken, and articulate. It is because I don't have to stress about what people think.” 

Some studies indicate that LGBTQ+ employees who are able to be out in the workplace and choose to open up about their personal lives experience significant benefits as a result. Queer and trans people who come out at work report that their relationships with coworkers improve and they experience increased support and community, according to a 2021 survey of 135 LGBTQ+ adults published in the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion journal. Many also said they were able to better advocate for themselves when they were able to be more authentic with colleagues. 

They were also better able to fight for the “needs of their communities and other marginalized groups,” according to the researchers. “When they were in the closet, they didn’t feel they could speak up, but once they were out, they could take more of an allyship and advocacy role in the company or business,” lead author Thomas Sasso said in a statement accompanying the report.

Conversely, LGBTQ+ people who don’t have the freedom to be out on the job often struggle. According to 2016 data from diversity and inclusion research firm Coqual, 33% of LGBTQ+ employees who are not out at work lie or avoid answering questions about their personal lives. And, a representative of the firm notes, “because they change how they act to prevent colleagues from thinking they are LGBTQ+, 39% of LGBTQ+ employees feel that relationships with certain colleagues have suffered.” Furthermore, among LGBTQ+ employees who are out at work but who downplay their identities, 32% feel they have sacrificed their personal authenticity at work. Closeted queer and trans workers also experience increased fatigue, anxiety and even anger as a result of that unspoken barrier between themselves and others, according to a 2019 Journal of Applied Psychology study.

Once he felt comfortable coming out at work, Berntson said the pressure that had built up over years alleviated. After he started at Indeed in 2014, a manager asked him an open-ended question: “So what’s your deal?” The query wasn’t specifically about being gay and could have been “interpreted in a lot of different ways,” but his boyfriend, with whom he was living at the time, had been encouraging him to come out. So he decided to use the moment as an opportunity to share more about himself than he had in the past. He felt safe with this person, and he knew that it was time.

Much to Bertson’s relief, he was welcomed by his supervisor and other members of the team. “It was similar to coming out to my parents,” he says. “I wrote this big letter and jumped on a call with them. They said, ‘Well, we knew.’ A lot of stress could have been saved by being more comfortable with everyone around me.”

Personal image of Eric Berntson

Of course, not everyone feels safe to make that decision, nor should any colleague be expected or forced to come out. Coming out can have severe risks: Although the 2021 Indeed survey found that the vast majority of openly LGBTQ+ workers felt happy, safe, valued and productive in their work environments, visibility comes with challenges. A slim majority of respondents said they were treated differently (51 percent) or even worse (41 percent) than their straight, cisgender colleagues because of their identities. Almost exactly half have heard anti-LGBTQ+ remarks (49 percent) or slurs (51 percent) in the workplace.

But for those who do have the opportunity to be out at their offices, Berntson said that it can be absolutely life-changing. “I wish everyone was in the place to say just go for it,” he said. “Make sure you're in a safe space. Find your support network and the people that you have community with, to avoid feeling further isolated. Have a little faith in people, but also have confidence in yourself. It does get better in the end.”