Study: Nearly half of college-educated gay Americans are in the closet at work

A new study by the Center for Work-Life Policy think tank has found that 48 percent of college-educated lesbian and gay Americans hide their sexual orientation at work. About a third of them are leading "double lives," the report says--staying in the closet at the office while being "out" in their personal lives.

Gay and lesbians who are not out at work are more likely to report job-related stress and isolation than their peers, and are also more likely to say they want to leave their current jobs. When coworkers chat about their husbands or wives and their weekend plans, closeted co-workers fall silent. This result is an isolated feeling that they can't bring their "whole selves" to work, the authors say, which affects productivity and job satisfaction.

Despite the high percentage of workers who say they don't want to tell coworkers about their sexual orientation, many of the country's top companies explicitly extend protections and benefits to their gay employees. Nearly 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and 57 percent of them extend benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees, the report says. Cisco even makes up the tax premium for its employees that gay couples in domestic partnerships pay over married straight couples, which is estimated to be at about $1,000 per year.

Karen Sumberg, a co-author of the report, says that gay-friendly policies aren't enough to encourage some employees to come out.

"It's not just the policies, but also how well they're communicated," she told The Lookout. "What we found is that people aren't always sure that they have these policies or what it means, both gay and straight."

Sumberg also said gays can be a "silent minority," even among top managers. "There are a lot of senior executives out there that are not out," she said. "The effect that a senior person has who comes out on the work environment is huge."

In some cases, closeted employees may be responding to their coworkers more than any single corporate policy or lack of one. Thirty seven percent of straight women and 52 percent of straight men say they prefer gay people keep their personal lives to themselves, and 29 states do not prohibit employers from discriminating against LGBT workers.

The study's research was sponsored by American Express, Boehringer Ingelheim USA, Cisco, Credit Suisse, Deloitte, and Google.

(Stock photo: ThinkStock.)