...A lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employee. "The first thing someone should consider is what the laws are in the state," says Steven Petrow, writer of the Civil Behavior column for The New York Times and former president of the National Gay & Lesbian Journalists Association. "In about three-quarters of the states, you could be fired at will for being LGBT, so you don't want to put your job in jeopardy, particularly in this economy. The second thing to consider is your understanding of the policies on diversity [at your workplace]. That's a great clue as to how your news will be welcomed."
"One of the most difficult and challenging myths is that it's the gay person who wants to bring his or her personal life to the workplace, when the opposite is true," says Deena Fidas, deputy director of the workplace project at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. "The workplace demands some level of sharing. The average straight person might not realize how they're sharing their orientation at work, through photographs of their significant other on their desk, through wearing wedding rings, through mentioning their spouse in conversation and other subtle ways."
If you choose to come out, you could use this approach of contextual sharing to do it. "Put a photo on your desk of you and your loved one," Petrow suggests. "That's exactly what a straight person would do, and it's a really smooth and professional way of coming out."
You do need to initiate a formal conversation about your personal life with human resources, though, if you're hoping to use workplace employee benefits. An example would be if you want to cover your spouse on your health insurance or if you need to take extended time off work to care for your same-sex partner. If that's the case, you should first check the HRC website (www.hrc.org/cei) for a summary of state laws and corporate policies for same-sex partner benefits.
...Looking for a new job. One word: Don't. According to Heathfield, the second you do, you'll become a dead employee walking. "I don't see any upside to having this conversation with your boss," she says. "There will be no more promotions, there will be no more pay raises. They're going to start planning for your absence. I can understand if you want to be considerate, but also understand that the consequences [of telling] are quite severe. If you're not sure that you're ready to leave, don't say anything."
If you do cross the Rubicon and decide to tell your employer you're job searching, you might have a discreet conversation with your direct supervisor about whether he or she might serve as a reference. But base how you frame your request on your familiarity with your organization's HR policies. Some companies prohibit employees from giving references; there are also companies that will only confirm dates of employment if they're called during a reference check. "Notice to an employer is always appreciated," Heathfield says. "But speak privately with your boss and say: 'I know the company policy is not to give official references, but if someone calls you, could you tell them I've been a good employee?' Depending on how stringent the policy, the manager might say yes."