The short answer to the question “how can I come out and be out at work?” is that there is no one right answer. Everyone's situation and lived experience is different. At the same time, hearing from others about what has worked well for them can be helpful as you assess what works best for you.

To that end, five Harvard Business School students and alumni have generously offered advice based on their experience coming out and being out at work as members of the LGBTQ community. With thanks to Justin, Matt, John, Paul, and Elizabeth, we share their thoughts here.

Own Your Identity as an Asset

Justin Schlacks (MBA 2023) shared, “My biggest piece of advice is to be confident in who you are and to bring your full self to work each day.

Being your authentic self helps to build relationships with colleagues, increase job satisfaction, create safe spaces for others, and improve business outcomes with diverse perspectives and lived experiences. HBS students and alumni advise their peers to own what they uniquely bring to the table – from both your professional and personal experience. From there, you’ll create opportunities for yourself and for others.

As Matt Wood (MBA 2024) added, “I’ve felt the most affirmed and championed when my team has seen my distinct lived experience as an asset, not just an advertisement opportunity. Social Finance did just that and allowed me to leverage my queer identity and global health background to add value to an HIV access project with USAID in India.”

Seek Out Mentors

What if you are unsure of how to bring your full authentic self to work? That’s where mentors can play an incredibly important role.

“If you have any doubts about your ability to do this (bring your full self to work), seek a mentor at work or outside of work to discuss the right approach - every situation is unique,” said Schlacks. Your existing network is a great place to start when seeking out a mentor, but you can also connect with HBS alumni. Great places to start when looking for an alumni mentor include the HBS Alumni Directory and the HBS PRIDE Alumni Association.

Mentors can also be found within your organization. “I was introduced to older LGBTQ+ employees at the firm,” shared John Davis (MBA 2020). “Being exposed to these individuals made it easier for me to live my life authentically at the workplace because I saw and heard about how their openness did not hinder their career path, and in most cases, it actually benefited them.”

Identify Allies

Identifying allies at work has also been important for the HBS students and alumni we spoke with.

Davis recommended “Identify someone who you believe is an ally. Even if they are not part of the LGBTQ+ community, an ally will be there to support you as you begin the coming out process at work.”

Wood echoed this point about seeking allies who will support you inside and outside of the organization. “When working in client service industries such as consulting, the reality is that not all client sites will be as progressive, so identifying senior leader champions early on can be very helpful to establish institutional credibility,” he shared. “With this support, I’ve felt more confident that clients will be focusing on the slides at hand, rather than the color of my nail polish.”

One way to identify an ally is looking for the inclusivity of their language. Elizabeth Zwart (MBA 2023) shared “My company did a great job of obscuring the gender of partners when working at conservative clients so that queer consultants didn’t have to more obviously out themselves (if they didn’t want to) when talking about partners.”

Join LGBTQ+ and Ally Groups and Events

During PRIDE month, many companies will publicly state their support for the LGBTQ+ community, but coming out and being out at work is not limited to 30 days out of the year. “What I think differentiates a good versus a great culture for LGBT employees is how the organization shows up for its employees the other eleven months out of the year,” said Wood.

That ongoing support may come in the form of ERGs and events. “On my very first day of work I received an email from the coordinator of the LGBTQ+ community welcoming me to the company and introducing me to the Pride Employee Resource Group at my company,” Davis shared. “This immediately made me feel welcomed and that there were other folks like me at the company.”

Zwart added “In my first company, they were so affirming and actively helped me come out by encouraging and normalizing LGBTQ+ folks being at different stages of their out journeys and creating LGBTQ-only networking events as well as LGBTQ + ally events that might be easier intros for people. Having fun activities and joy alongside discussion of difficulty and challenge at the company was really helpful.”

Come Out When You Are Ready

As our HBS alumni and students have experienced, the supportive environments noted above do not currently exist everywhere, which can be hurtful and frustrating. Also, everyone’s needs, choices, and circumstances will be different. That’s why HBS students and alumni emphasized the importance of your personal comfort as part of the process.

Paul Donaher (MBA 1981) shared that he has had mixed experiences coming out and being out at work over the course of a long career and offers sound advice for everyone – “People should not assume anything about someone’s personal life.” He also added that in addition to more awareness about heteronormative assumptions, for LBGTQ+ folks, coming out as early as you feel comfortable can be helpful. “If you start out lying or fibbing, it is hard to pull back,” he said.

“Do it when you are ready,” added Davis. “You know the culture of your company and the types of individuals who work there the best, so only come out at work when you feel like you're ready.”