Nearly half of LGBTQ Americans haven’t come out at work

(CNN Money) — Being yourself at work is not always easy.

Nearly half of all LGBTQ employees aren’t out at work, according to a new survey from the Human Rights Campaign.

And that’s not just a problem for LGBTQ employees — that’s a problem for employers, too.

Fostering a culture of inclusion has direct effects on workers’ output and productivity. In the same survey, 31% of LGBTQ respondents said they felt unhappy or depressed at work. Another 20% had stayed home from work because their workplace “wasn’t always accepting of LGBTQ people.” Others said their inability to feel comfortable at work had even pushed them to search for other jobs.

A majority of respondents admitted they’d heard homophobic jokes at work, but most said they didn’t report them, usually because they didn’t believe their workplace would do anything to fix the issue.

“When people talk about a weight on your shoulders, that’s really what it feels like,” says Bailey Grey, an attorney in Texas. “And that’s kind of a constant distraction, however small it might be in a given moment.”

After Grey came out to her colleagues as a trans lesbian woman, she noticed a big change in her work and attitude.

“I was significantly less anxious and less depressed, and that obviously has a big influence on my productivity,” she says. “Even little things like my ability to get out of bed in the morning and get ready quickly and get to work and be excited about it.”

Changing the culture

In order to change a culture so it’s more welcoming toward all workers, employers first need to educate themselves on how LGBTQ employees may experience their office environment.

“Notice if on Monday morning at the coffee machine if an LGBTQ person is made to feel isolated,” says Deena Fidas, director of workplace equality at the Human Rights Campaign. “If everyone is sharing and then when Jorge, who happens to be gay, shares something just as normal as everyone else, that he and his partner saw the same movie, does the conversation end? Do people people change eye contact? Do people walk away?”

Employee engagement can suffer by up to 30% if LGBTQ individuals continue to feel unwelcome at work, according to the survey.

“We want this data to be a conversation starter,” says Fidas.

Having a clear policy on the books is also important.

Over 80% of the companies in the Fortune 500 have some sort of anti-discrimination policy that protects LGBTQ employees, Fidas says.

But employers shouldn’t rely solely on policies and training to make their work culture more accepting. They need to follow through on making sure those policies are being implemented in practice.

“Do the right thing, put those policies in place, ensure that benefits are equitable for this population, have an employee resource training, have inclusion training,” she says. “And recognize that creating a truly welcoming and inclusive culture doesn’t stop with the words.”

Taking the leap

For employees, coming out at work can be an isolating process, so seeking out allies is critical.

Grey says that when she was making the decision to come out, she relied heavily on a business administrator confidante and a contact at her employer’s external HR firm.

“It took all the courage I had to come out and be like ‘This is something I’m doing, I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not at work anymore,’ and from that point on, I was like, ‘Please help me,'” she says. “So I was looking for input the whole time, and they were both very good about giving it and then having further conversations about it.”

Grey says she was “blown away” by how well her then-workplace supported her during her transition. Now in a new job, she appreciates the difference.

“At the old job there was always that little annoying voice in the back of my head: ‘How do they really see me? Are they just being nice to be nice? Are people talking about me behind my back?'” she says. “And there’s just none of that anymore.”