United Nations | 17072

Text updated 31 December 2017
Links updated 6 February 2018

What is this about?

Making sure your conduct at work or in a public official capacity does not cause problems for you.

At work

Employers have a ‘duty of care’ which is implied in all employment contracts. That means they are responsible for ensuring you are cared for at work and you do not have to work in unhealthy or unsafe conditions. That includes conditions which are stressful or degrading to you. Many employers have updated their personnel policies and management procedures to ensure that they do not fall foul of the law. Some of those policies are about the behaviour of people in the workplace and other situations related with work, and in view of the changes in the law, if you are gay or lesbian it can be advantageous to ask yourself the following questions:

What laws, policies and procedures exist and affect me?

Do those policies mean I need to change my behaviour to avoid problems, and succeed at work?

What resources and information about behaviour is available to me?

How should I fine tune my performance and behaviour so that I can achieve equality at work?

Most employers have policies which address the issue of behaviour (sometimes called conduct or harassment) in the workplace. The legal term is ‘conduct’. Usually the policies refer to harassment, which is when the behaviour of one person affects the rights and dignity of a second person to an extent that offence is given. So, sexual harassment is behaviour of a sexual nature which offends the person on the receiving end of it. There are also situations where someone is singled out for different treatment from other people, for instance if they are of a different sex, race, ability or sexuality. That is also harassment, a serious offence which might involve criminal offences under the Public Order or Protection of Harrassment Acts. Sometimes there is a single incident, but often there is continual behaviour which causes offence – for instance repeated name-calling, intimidation or belittling of a person. When it is continual behaviour, it can be regarded as bullying.

If something goes wrong, you would normally expect there to be a complaint, an investigation, perhaps an interview and a decision by a senior manager, then if the outcome did not satisfy all the parties, perhaps an internal appeal. If upheld, a complaint may result in some kind of disciplinary action being taken against the person whose behaviour had caused offence. That might include loss of grade or pay, or other privilege. Most of the time, problems with behaviour do not end up in court or in an industrial tribunal, but in some exceptional cases they do; so it is in your interests as an employer or employee to do all you can to understand how a persons’ behaviour affects other people, and access information or training that will help you use your own behaviour, which includes your communication and people skills, effectively and in everyones’ interests.

If you think there are aspects of your own behaviour which you would like to consider, contact your training or HR department to see if there are any training materials you can work through such as books or video packages which address the subjects of interpersonal communication, body language and behaviour, or assertiveness. These materials will have models of behaviour that you can compare yourself with and measure yourself by, and they will help you analyse your own behaviour as others experience it. For instance, do you come over as a helpful and co-operative team member and friend, or are you seen as pushy and aggressive? Are you a good listener or a poor listener? Is your managerial style on the right side of bullying?

If you think there are real or imagined barriers at work that are preventing you from getting any further in your career, find out whether there is a ‘positive action course’ that will help you identify and remove those barriers.

If you want to analyse your personal style in depth, and make subtle changes to the way you do things and communicate with people, you may care to investigate models of behaviour which look at the way people interact with each other. These models look at communications, body language, and how people function.

If you are a member of a trade union or a professional association, find out whether they have any appropriate training or other resources.

If you want to practice your new skills, see whether there is some work related, community or voluntary activity you can do which will help you put them into effect. Or perhaps you might be interested in being mentored, which is when someone provides an additional layer of support for you by being there to listen, explore ideas and help you make decisions.

Public Capacity

The number of gay men and lesbians serving in a public capacity has increased considerably in recent years. There are now lesbian and gay cabinet ministers and even government leaders as well as town hall mayors. In America The Victory Fund reported:

Of the estimated 500,000 elected officials in the United States, 495 are openly gay, up from 49 about 20 years ago. That is still less than 1%.

Gay men and lesbians standing for public office, including running a gay group or a campaigning group, being a school governor, parish councillor, magistrate or any other activity in society, want to show themselves in their best light.

Standing for public office is a responsible thing to do as a member of society, but you need to be aware that it always involves some degree of loss of privacy in your private life, and be prepared for that. That is the price of being a public figure.

It is worth familiarising yourself with the summary of the Nolan Committee’s First Report on Standards in Public Life. This report was issued in 1995 and has a wealth of advice for people taking on public duties.

The Nolan Committee identified seven areas of behaviour which were critical and in which the highest standards of professional and personal behaviour should be displayed by all holders of public office. In many cases a departure from these standards, especially in the holding of a councillor role, could result in you being reported for your conduct, and investigated by the council’s standards committee.

The Nolan Committee listed the seven principles of public life as being:








In particular, because this catches out gay men time and again: never, ever, give strangers your own money or your bank details.

If you want to have a public as well as a private life, it is also good practice to avoid uploading any explicit information or photographs of yourself on networking and gay web sites – and to check that someone else isn’t doing just that, pretending to be you.

Make sure you understand what corruption is – Transparency International defines corruption as ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’ – and ensure you completely avoid it.

Coming out in public life

In recent years a record number of gay people in public positions or in the public eye have come out as gay. The vast majority of them found that coming out was a relief and it does not appear to have had any adverse effects on their positions or careers.

In the UK and most western European countries being homosexual or bisexual is no bar to being elected or to becoming a high official. For those who have been out all their working and political lives there is no problem. The problems are for those who have perhaps been in political life longer and have created the image of a conventional life while living a double life and being afraid that their electorates will reject them.

However there have been isolated cases where out gay men who have not conducted themselves to the highest professional standards have encountered difficulties and in some cases been forced out of office.

There seem to be three main ways of handling your sexuality in public life:

Full openness;

Build an image and have a secret life; and

Just get on with it and don’t discuss your sexuality.

Gay Activist is not in a position to tell people how they should live their lives and whether or not they should come out. That’s a personal decision for each individual. You have to consider your own circumstances, how your party and colleagues would feel and be affected and what impact it will have on the people you love.

If you are elected to a public position you may receive aggressive or homophobic behaviour or other types of abusive incidents from other elected officials or from other people. Gay Activist hopes you will not encounter any, but in case you do, it would be sensible to have a plan of action prepared so that if it does arise you are not caught off guard and can deal with it in an appropriate and professional manner. There will usually be officials and group members who can advise you on conduct matters.

Trends in society

The public are increasingly fed up with and intolerant of being lied to or any other pretence.

Public officials who have been “forced out” often later report that there is a weight off their mind and they feel much happier.

Being gay or lesbian is no longer a bar to being appointed a Minister in any of the major parties in Western Europe.

In some cities where there are large gay and lesbian populations there is enhanced chance of getting re-elected if you are open.

Back in the 1950s MPs were able to have a double life and evade prosecution because of their status while their constituents who were gay were being rounded up, criminalised and harassed. Those days of double standards and corruption must never come back.

As a public official, with both a responsibility to serve your community and to help it to prosper, or as someone in any profession who is known by the public, the best way of conducting yourself is to be open and honest with people, including about your sexuality.


Parliament, Undated: Nolan Committee’s First Report on Standards in Public Life
New Statesman, 23 April 2007: The closet is a lonely place
New York Times, 10 June 2011: For Gay Aspiring Politicians, a Workshop on Campaign Strategies
CPS UK: Legal guidance: misconduct in public office
House of Commons: Public Administration Select Committee: Ethics and Standards – The Regulation of Conduct in Public Life
Standards in Public Office Commission, Ireland: Codes of Conduct