What should I do about being involuntarily outed at work?
March 27, 2009 7:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm about to be involuntarily outed as a bisexual at work. What should I expect?

I am a bisexual man in my late 30's. I work for a Fortune 500 company in a conservative state in the US. Although I have a college education, I was demoted last year from a highly skilled hourly position to a position as a factory worker to avoid layoff. I still make an acceptable wage for now and I have no intention of voluntarily leaving the company yet, especially in this economic climate.

After I transferred to my new position, I was assigned to work for and be trained by a man I will call "Bob". He and I work for an actual supervisor I will call "Jim". I'm pretty sure that Bob has unnaturally good gaydar, because he started to ask questions that were geared toward identifying my sexual orientation soon after we met. I never identified myself as a bisexual to him or anyone else.

At the time, unknown to me, a search on Google for my real name brought up my preferred internet handle, which was and is unique to me. A subsequent search for that handle brought up all the blog and usenet posts that I've made about my sexuality, my atheism, and a lot of other stuff that isn't anyone's business at work.

Bob started to blackmail me. He would make homophobic remarks to me,make thinly-veiled threats like, "people should be careful about what they say on the internet", and started a campaign to ruin my name as a worker with my coworkers and supervision. Last night, I heard him talking to our supervisor, Jim, about getting me fired for something that he had framed me for. I decided enough was enough.

Sexual orientation is a protected status in our company, so tomorrow I am going to file a sexual harassment case against Bob with the company. I've been told that Bob was written up a few years back for calling a lesbian at work a "stupid dyke". Hopefully, he'll be fired for this, though I have my doubts. Of course as soon as I do this, everyone I work with will find out that I'm bi.

As far as my bisexuality goes, I've been happily married to a woman for 15 years, have kids, don't flirt with guys or girls and basically live the life of a straight man (who really likes gay porn :). I decided a long time ago to stay in the closet. My wife and I are the only ones who know right now. She's totally cool with it.

So, my question (finally!): How should I deal with being forcefully outed at work when I am quite content (at this point) to stay in the closet? What can I expect from my mostly conservative coworkers?

Sorry for the long story, I just wanted to cover everything, since I can't respond to questions. TIA for your answers!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Whatever happens: Stay away from Bob. You might want to get confrontational, but don't, or at least not yet.

Filing the case is the logical next step. In this case, your company will probably have certain statutes to protect your privacy.

Bob sounds like a complete jerk. But on the whole, very few people will care about a person's sexuality—even conservatives.
posted by trotter at 7:27 AM on March 27, 2009

Agreed with trotter...HR departments are well trained at keeping things private, especially large, experienced HR department that your Fortune 500 company is likely to have.

File the complaint, and while you will know, Bob will know, and HR will know (and perhaps any lawyers who get involved), the only way anyone else in the company would find out is if Bob blabs, which will get him in even hotter water with HR.

Is this going to be rough for you? Yes, because you'll have to talk to HR and just be open about something you're not normally open about. But I don't think you need to worry about everyone you work with knowing.

I had a totally different situation but similar in that something I didn't want people knowing got involved in an HR dispute and I thought everyone would know...and no one knew. Even my supervisor and managers didn't know the specifics. That was also a Fortune 500 company.

So good luck.
posted by arniec at 7:31 AM on March 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

If it makes you uncomfortable, you can always deny deny deny. I mean, why are people going to naturally believe Bob? He's the one, after all, who has had issues in the past. If it comes up, deny it as a laughable claim and say you've filed a report against Bob in HR for falsely spreading rumors and sexual harassment. Even HR doesn't need to know it's true -- it's still harassment even if it's false, no?
posted by nitsuj at 7:34 AM on March 27, 2009 [4 favorites]

Nitsuj's idea is a good one; however, the OP has apparently been linked to his online postings in a credible way, which Bob could reveal if pressed. The OP will have to decide how strong Bob's evidence will appear to outsiders.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:44 AM on March 27, 2009

How are you being outed at work? HR isn't going to tell your coworkers private information about you OR about a potential legal action. Bob will probably be advised to do the same, and could possibly be fired immediately if he does. You yourself shouldn't be discussing it, so if someone asks you about it, tell them you can't discuss Bob's HR problem with other people. And then smile politely and let them wonder exactly what HR problem Bob has, and whether they want a piece of it.

Bob's already told whoever he was going to tell, it's just that most grown-up people just want to do their jobs and not get in trouble. They also probably don't care. Do your work, handle the mess with HR and HR only, and be above the lame high school shit Bob has apparently been getting away with for ages.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:51 AM on March 27, 2009

Good for you for filing a complaint against Bob. I don't know what you can expect from your colleagues or your company in the aftermath of that, but it's the right thing to do. I suppose word might get out about your being bi because of Bob's big mouth, but surely there'll be discretion on the part of your HR department and supervisor, so probably not everyone will know, or even more than a few people, though it may feel like it.

I'd urge you to make sure your work and behaviour at work are impeccable. Don't be late, don't surf the net at work, and be professional and hard-working at all times. There's no need for you to discuss the situation or your sexual preferences with anyone outside of those responsible for handling the complaint if you don't want to. You can definitely choose to consider this matter strictly your business and insist that others respect that.
It's your choice, but I would hope you would choose not to lie or deny.

I think you'll find a range of reactions among your co-workers. Some will be supportive, some will be homophobic, some might have an initial negative reaction to learning of your sexual preferences but come around in time, some might consider it strictly your business regardless of what they think of it, some might always feel awkward around you. It'll be a learning experience for some people. Make friends with the people you like who are friendly and supportive and understanding in the same way as you would in any workplace situation, and they'll stick up for you if they hear any badmouthing the way friends do.

I'm sorry you've had to go through this. Bob's dickishness should not be your problem. However, the reality is that you do have to deal with it, so keep your chin up, and refuse to be embarrassed or ashamed or any such thing.
posted by orange swan at 7:55 AM on March 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

Keep yourself strictly on the high road. Really strictly.

Maybe I'm reading this wrong, but it seems you've taken someone else into your confidence or you've asked around some general questions about Bob (how do you know he did a google search, and how do you know about his write-up for calling a woman a dyke?). That's ok, but now's a time to bring that to a halt: No gossiping, questions into things, anything like that.

Of course you are keeping detailed notes, though? If not, get that together now, for HR but not for anyone else.

What you want, I suggest, is to appear completely above-board, so this doesn't look like two people gossiping about each other and generally not getting along.

As far as being in a conservative area, that may work to your advantage. Generally with conservatives, sexuality is seen as a black-or-white, either-or situation. You have a wife and kids, which serve as "proof" to conservatives that you are straight.

So, if you remain completely professional at all times, notably mention your wife and kids when you can, then he will come off as unbelievable, scared about job security, and petty.

It may be that your HR representative shares Bob's feelings about bisexuality, but the rules and laws hopefully will keep them on the right track. I hope you can expect that they will handle the whole mess extremely confidentially and with escalating repercussions for Bob if he does not keep it confidential. Ideally, Bob would leave your workplace (that's the best thing for you, plus of course he's a jerk). If you rely on HR to do their job correctly, your main task to getting Bob out of there is to have a rock-solid professional demeanor while this is going on, so they do not come to any conclusion other than Bob needs an escort out of the building.
posted by Houstonian at 7:57 AM on March 27, 2009

There might be some benefit to referring to Bob's accusations about what he believes to be your internet posts. You don't necessarily have to acknowledge that they are yours, as it's mostly immaterial. His behavior is still harassment whether or not you made those posts.
posted by electroboy at 8:01 AM on March 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Have talked to your supervisor yet? If you file a case at this point, you may or may not be outed. I have the utmost respect for HR, but stuff gets around - through IT, admin assistants, paperwork on the desk, etc.

If you talk to your supervisor it's possible he or she can take care of the problem without all the hassle of "filing a case". You don't have to go into a whole lot of detail - your sexuality is pretty much besides the point and he or she probably doesn't care anyway. Focus on how Bob is harassing you and how he is violating company policy.

A manager can usually go to HR and say, "I'm terminating so and so because he is violating company policy x, y, and z" with no problem especially if the employee has been counseled before. HR cannot do the reverse; they do not have the direct hire/fire authority that the line manager does although certainly they exert a lot of influence.

If you go to HR first, your supervisor will most likely get called in anyway as HR investigates. He or she may be disciplined or counseled. If you have reason to believe that your supervisor endorses or tolerates Bob's behavior, then go to HR. If you don't, consider approaching your supervisor first. It's usually most efficient and effective to try and solve things at the lowest level.
posted by txvtchick at 8:13 AM on March 27, 2009

This is going to echo some of the comments above, but they should be repeated:

The standard as I understand it is the creation of a hostile work environment. Fortune 500 companies will have very clear and strict guidelines for HR to adhere to when you notify them of Bob's behavior. You should be keeping notes but as mentioned above those notes are only for you and for HR. If HR does not deal with it you'll need those notes if you go outside of the company to resolve this. Do not discuss this with anyone outside your family and specifically HR.

I have been involved (as the manager) with a couple of HR issues between folks who worked under me for similar things (I was not the target of the complaints), if your experience is going to be similar the first thing that HR will do is instruct all parties who know anything about it to full stop and only speak with the HR rep about whatever is going on. The next thing HR does will be to take statements from the parties involved. If they determine that the complains are likely to cause physical repercussions (a fight) one or both of the employees may be asked to go on PTO, that doesn't sound likely in this case but it depends on the situation. Things will probably move painfully slow, so be prepared for it to seem like things are dragging on forever. Continue to keep notes! The company HR in as much as they are there to protect their employees from other employees are also there to protect the company first and foremost. This isn't to say they are evil bastards and won't be sympathetic, but they are there to protect the interests of the company, legally for a complaint about a hostile work environment that means sorting through the complaint and getting to the bottom of whether a hostile environment did indeed exist and what remedies there are for it, and then insuring that they aren't exposed legally to either employee.
posted by iamabot at 8:17 AM on March 27, 2009

Well, I am assuming that your coworkers already know, since people like Bob are rarely able to keep their yaps shut. Good for you for choosing to stand up for yourself, btw. I agree with others that you should take the high road and not bring this up with your coworkers ever-as was said before, most of them will see that you have a wife and kids and that will be the end of it.

And please do let us know how this turns out. People like Bob cannot be allowed to get away with this type of behavior.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:20 AM on March 27, 2009

As far as being in a conservative area, that may work to your advantage. Generally with conservatives, sexuality is seen as a black-or-white, either-or situation. You have a wife and kids, which serve as "proof" to conservatives that you are straight.

There's another possibility here: some people may conclude that you're "really" gay and cheating on/lying to/whatever your wife. In any case it's none of their business, but you might want to think about how you'll handle it if it comes up.

And congratulations on doing the right thing and standing up for your rights. It's a shitty situation, but it sounds like you're handling it pretty well.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:25 AM on March 27, 2009

What a horrible situation. For what it's worth I think you're doing exactly the right thing. Go to HR and document the problem so that he can't get you fired.

Even if you live in a conservative state, most people are decent. If word gets out somehow that 15 years ago you wrote some funky stuff on the Internet, I think most people are just gonna say "huh" and move on. Particularly if they have any respect for your wife and children. You sound concerned that you're going to be "outed", but people will judge you by who you are and how you act, not what someone maliciously says about something you said 15 years ago.

One other thing I'll throw out there; your initial description of Bob having "good gaydar" and "ask questions" immediately made me assume Bob was hoping for a little action with you. I may be totally off-base, but if it feels that way too it may help you understand the situation. I don't think it changes anything, though, you go to HR and stay the hell away from Bob.
posted by Nelson at 8:47 AM on March 27, 2009

Funny...usually questions like these result in an immediate torrent of "get thee to a lawyer" comments. I wonder not this time.

Get thee to a discrimination lawyer -- even if for an initial consultation if you aren't confident you can afford to retain their services.
posted by randomstriker at 9:22 AM on March 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would also recommend getting a new screen name. I've had people stumble across posts I've made before (not sure if initial or be accident). You think you are anonymous online, but it doesn't take long to connect some dots and have a good hunch on who a screen name really is. If anything your personality bleeds through your posts unless you have an entirely different persona online.

I too lean towards the side that people probably don't care about your sexuality as much as Bob seems to. But you know the people in your workplace more than we do. It just seems so childish to me, I have a hard time believing a group of adults would push the issue so much.
posted by nickerbocker at 9:43 AM on March 27, 2009

Get thee to a discrimination lawyer -- even if for an initial consultation if you aren't confident you can afford to retain their services.

Yeah, I hate to being a soldier in the "See a lawyer" army (oddly absent from this thread), but trusting your HR department to handle this properly without someone looking over their shoulder is really taking things on faith. Their job is to ensure the company doesn't get sued, not that you get a fair resolution to your problem.

Also, before you go, write down every last thing Bob has said or done that's relevant to this, the date when it happened, and the names of everyone who heard or saw it. Print out any e-mails, etc. Get every last thing down on paper.

Finally, take serious heed of the advice above to ensure that your HR department knows that you do not want to be outed. They should be trying to handle this as quietly as possible.
posted by hayvac at 10:02 AM on March 27, 2009

So sorry about this. I was outed once at work (despite not really being 'in' -- just had people talking about stuff they had no business talking about) and it can be really uncomfortable.

In addition to the advice above to stay away from Bob, I'll go one further. Under no circumstances should you EVER be alone in a room with him, lest he accuse *you* of sexual harassment. (And believe me, asshats do that regularly.) If you have to have any interaction with him, make sure you take along someone who can attest to your version of events, should it ever be necessary.

Good luck with this. Be who you are and don't get wrapped up in the drama. As soon as some other drama comes along, people will forget about this one.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:10 AM on March 27, 2009

Use his homophobia against him: one strategy I used to deflect a co-worker's constant comments about our gay boss was along the lines of, "Wow. You seem really interested in Dan's sexual orientation. It's interesting, cause I don't really know any straight guys that are that preoccupied with someone being gay. Not that I'm saying you are gay or anything. I just find it... interesting." I did this when he made a comment at lunch, in front of several other coworkers. He never said anything about it after that, while I was in earshot anyway.

This could backfire wildly, he could take you to HR, he could out you out of spite or take it as confirmation that you are bi or gay, but seriously: what's his fascination? Point it out. Rinse, repeat.
posted by 8dot3 at 11:39 AM on March 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh: and then go to HR. He's an ass and needs to shut it.
posted by 8dot3 at 11:40 AM on March 27, 2009

While I don't know much about your company's culture in particular, I am familiar with people like Bob.

Bob's a bully, and he has been successfully bullying you. Now you are working to stop the bullying. This could cause him to escalate. I wouldn't be surprised if he told your coworkers about your sexual orientation.

Please please please document really well everything you've said in this thread. And please please please go talk to a discrimination lawyer. The company and the HR department will try to protect its interests: this means doing whatever it can to make the problem go away quickly. If for some reason they decide the 'problem' is you things could turn against you. You need someone who will represent your interests exclusively.

About your coworkers: who knows? It will be juicy gossip to some people. But a lot of people won't care. Some might come to you and ask if the rumors are true. Some might come to you and say that there's a weird rumor going around about you. Some might avoid you.
posted by medusa at 12:45 PM on March 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was on board with the suggestions to handle this as a clear cut sexual harassment/ possibly stalking case with HR until I revisited your discovery that Bob is trying to frame you.

You need a lawyer's advice on how to proceed with HR and how to interpret their process in handling this situation. They will protect themselves first.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 1:43 PM on March 27, 2009

A suggestion for where to find legal counsel about this: the ACLU. Your state probably has a chapter even if you're in a conservative state.
posted by Sublimity at 6:54 PM on March 27, 2009

need more specific advice. I don't think I'm the one to give it to you, but...

How stupid is Bob?
I.e. How likely is it that despite the HR thing he has or will go tell everyone anyway?

Because if he has, or will, then as a rule, it's almost always better to beat naysayers to the punch with news. But, I don't know how well your co-workers would react, or what would be the most tactful way TOO beat them to the punch.

If he has been talking to everyone already, maybe do break the news publicly, in a kind of "I don't know why Bob keeps hassling me/digging up old bones. I've been married & faithful for 15 years..."
kind of way.
If you can diffuse the situation to your boss and coworkers, you've got the best chance of good long term relations at your job. As you've guessed, you could win the HR war, and still lose the battle of public opinion, and therefore your otherwise good working environment.

But, if he hasn't broken news yet - maybe don't? And if it would affect HR thing?

It's a really tricky, delicate situation.
You need the advice of a gay-friendly/specific employment lawyer, or a counsellor, and mefi isn't cutting it.
posted by Elysum at 2:31 AM on March 28, 2009

In a sense, Bob was coming on to you. In some deep, psychologically flawed way, Bob is obsessed with same-sex behavior. Bob also stalked and blackmailed you. So, if anyone finds out, you tell the truth: Bob came on to you, stalked you and tried to blackmail you and you reported him to HR. You'd also appreciate the person you're talking to letting it die and moving on.
posted by Leper_Messiah at 8:37 PM on April 27, 2009

i really disagree with leper_messiah, i think that, armchair psychoanalyzation bob's homophobia aside, your average individual will not interpret bob's actions as coming onto you as much as bigoted fuckwaddery. claiming that he's come onto you will make you look ridiculous and will substantially weaken your argument.
posted by anthropomorphic at 11:30 PM on May 28, 2009

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