Salo, a finance, accounting and HR staffing firm, hosted a "Navigating Your Career as an LGBTQ Professional" panel June. 26 at its Chicago office.
John Bankhurst, Salo's business development director, moderated the panel, which included Russ Testa, the firm's chief talent officer; Maria Zacapa, a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley; and Mike Stent, senior director of internal audit at Zebra. The finance and accounting professionals shared their experiences coming out as gay in the workplace, challenges affecting LGBTQ professionals and advice on making more inclusive workplaces.
Zacapa said that, although Morgan Stanley is progressive and supportive at the corporate level, she was nervous to come out because she works in "one of the most conservative areas of finance" and with clients who might not be as supportive.
"When I sit down with clients, I expect them to tell me everything that keeps them up at night, and there has to be some reciprocity and authenticity on my end to build trust," Zacapa said. "So it's hard finding that balance of being true to yourself without alienating others."
Zacapa said she was happy to find that being open about her sexuality at work only built trust between her and her clients.
For Testa, who came out while working in human relations in the retail field, which he said consists of predominantly women, being open about his sexuality built trust between him and his colleagues.
"I noticed the women in the organization had a different level of trust in value in me," he explained. "I think they felt somehow more comfortable and secure and less threatened, which is important in H.R. I looked at my sexuality as something that could have distanced me as being very different, but in many ways it brought me more opportunity and ability to show my true talents."
Zacapa said companies need to do better at making sure their benefits are LGBTQ-inclusive. She and her wife just welcomed their first child, and when she called to request parental leave, they increased it to a month for someone who isn't the primary caregiver.
"That's generous, but not enough," Zacapa said. "They also asked for proof that I had a child, which I know male colleagues who [have] never had to do that. But I do think corporate America is trying to do its best, but we can still do better at offering benefits to LGBTQ people."
Stent, who launched Zebra's LGBTQ resource group, Zeal, about a month ago, said the group's presence has already shifted Zebra's culture so that more LGBTQ people feel comfortable being open about their identities.
"We had our first coffee chat a few weeks ago, and one of our factory workers called in from a small town in Wisconsin, saying he's a transgender man, and this is his first time working for a company that actually respects who he is," Stent said. "That impact is huge. This is someone who is going to stay with the company because we're respecting who he is. We've had other folks who have said this has made them feel more comfortable to come out too."
Stent said it's easier to come out at work knowing there are other successful LGBTQ employees who have already done so. He recalled when, last summer, a former intern who's now graduating college and starting a career in the field, asked to grab lunch.
"He came out to me that day, and said it was helpful for him to see a gay leader who's comfortable in who he is, and no one cares," Stent said. "It made him comfortable enough to start his career as a gay man, which I was not comfortable doing when I started mine. So the power of all of us coming out is impactful."