When Susan Russell came to Freddie Mac in the early 90s, she only knew a handful of gay and lesbian employees that were out at work. That small cohort held unofficial group meetings around a lunch table in the cafeteria. They were just looking for companionship and support from people like them — a universal human desire — but one that was difficult to achieve amongst those identifying as LGBTQIA over 25 years ago.
"I remember really wishing that there was just one out officer in our group," Russell, who is now Vice President, Human Resources Business Partners at Freddie Mac. "I wished that there was somebody we could look up to. And now, here we sit."
This month, Russell, along with five other officers at Freddie Mac, are publicly sharing their status as LGBTQIA to the workforce in hopes of encouraging more employees to come out at work.
"People who are out at work are the most productive, the happiest," said Chad Efantis, Vice President, Enterprise Business Transformation Office. "They are going to do the best job for the company and get the most satisfaction out of work."
Efantis is currently the chair of Freddie Mac's Pride employee resource group (ERG), the official successor to Russell's lunch crew. For the past few years, the ERG has focused on making employees feel more comfortable being out at work. Last June, Pride updated their "Safe Space" cards with bolder, more direct language, which allows allies to officially mark their workspace as welcoming to their LGBTQIA colleagues. During National Coming out Day in October, the group encouraged their fellow employees to sign an ally pledge, which acknowledged that they will "work to create an inclusive environment for people of all gender identities and sexual orientations."
"We've been focused on trying to increase our ally base," said Efantis. "By increasing our ally base, we will get the environment more receptive to being out."
The ERG's efforts have earned the company external accolades. Earlier this year, Freddie Mac announced its ninth–consecutive perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index. While the external recognition is hugely important, continuing to make the company feel welcoming to its LGBTQIA employees is just as important.
"Being in the closet is a lot of work. It gets in the way of you forming relationships with your colleagues," said Brandon Rush, Vice President, Investments & Capital Markets. "I think that it's important as an officer to be out and to continually let everyone else know that its fine to be who you are."
All the officers agree that Freddie Mac's environment is conducive to encouraging employees to be out at work, if they choose. Inside our walls, the company makes it easy for its employees to self-identify whether they are LGBTQIA, disabled, members of the military or veterans. But the officers also acknowledge that it is still a very personal choice to decide to come out to coworkers.
"Being out is very complicated," said Lance Wolf, Vice President, Department of the General Counsel. "It doesn't necessarily have to do with the workplace environment. Lots of issues go into that. But the workplace environment should not be an impediment."
Added Efantis, "We aren't trying to drag people of out of the closet. We just want them to be comfortable if they want to be out."
According to the Human Rights Campaign, 35% of LGBT employees feel compelled to lie about their personal lives while at work. That number is larger amongst younger workers, especially those in their first jobs out of college, who are less established in their careers compared to older generations.
"My boss made me feel like it was okay and I was safe," said Randa Paver, Vice President, Securities Operations. "[When I was closeted], I felt like I was doing people a disservice — our community a disservice — if I didn't identify outwardly as lesbian. The people here made me feel comfortable and safe doing that, but it took a long time."
Now Paver and her fellow officers are looking to return the favor.
"As leaders, we set the tone for the company," said Debby Jenkins, Senior Vice President, Multifamily Underwriting & Credit. "It's hard work to keep any secret. You have better relationships with your coworkers, employees and superiors, when you can be your authentic self. For us to be doing this, we are helping people be more comfortable."