Should I Come Out During The Background Investigation?

interview-guide-webOne of the questions I frequently get from LGBT law enforcement applicants is whether or not they should “come out” at any point during the hiring process. Most of the writers expressed concern about suffering from discrimination and worry about being disqualified by a homophobic background investigator or by agency that simply doesn’t want LGBT employees. These are legitimate concerns especially in states that do not have any type of employment protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Here are my thoughts.

First of all, as an “out” LGBT person, you need to consider seriously where you want to work and if you are willing to go back into the closet in order to get and maintain a job. This may at first seem like a sacrifice you are willing to make in order to get in to law enforcement, but you need to really consider the risks and long term implications of making such a sacrifice. Here is the important question: Are you willing to sacrifice happiness in your personal life for potential happiness in your professional life? Is it possible to realize happiness professionally, without happiness personally? I would say most likely it is not.

The reality today is that law enforcement is evolving, ever so slowly, in its acceptance of LGBT employees. As more law enforcement professionals come out at work, the law enforcement culture will evolve as it did when women entered the ranks of patrol officers some 40 years ago. Do you homework and do your best to fine a department that is likely to be accepting and even valuing of LGBT employees. Check out your state’s employment protection laws, city ordinances, and department policies to see if any or all include protection based on sexual orientation and or gender identity. If they do not include such protections, there is, of course, a greater risk of being disqualified or “legally” fired if your chief or sheriff doesn’t accept your sexual orientation or gender identity.

Now to the real question. In states where employment protection exists, it would not be likely that you would be asked about your sexual orientation during the initial selection process. In fact, it might be unlikely that anyone would ask you directly at any point during the hiring process. It will, however, come up indirectly at several points during the background investigation including the pre-investigation interview and during the psychological interview.

Every state has different regulations and different levels of detail that are considered during the background investigation. I’m most familiar with California’s process and believe it to be fairly comprehensive, so I will provide advice based on the process I know. California has very inclusive employment protection that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. It is not permissible to ask about either aspect of identity during an initial interview, so there is no need to offer up anything you are not comfortable discussing.

The background investigation includes a comprehensive personal history questionnaire, an investigation that includes interviews with most people close in your life, such as family members, spouses, roommates, employers, and work colleagues. It also includes a psychological evaluation, medical exam, and could include a polygraph or voice stress analysis interview. The first point at which you will have a decision to make about disclosing your sexual orientation is likely the personal history questionnaire. You will be asked to identify everyone you have lived with over the last ten years, people you have had a close relationship with and who you have married (and that could include domestic partners). You will need to provide names, addresses, and telephone numbers. So why not just identify your same-sex partner as “a roommate?” You could do that and probably get away with it unless you live in a one-room apartment. And yes, you can expect the background investigator to visit in person to see where and how you live.  The risk here is being perceived as deceitful, evasive, and or that you are hiding something, which in this example would be true.

Here is the more important consideration. Sexual orientation and gender identity are both protected classes in California, but an act of dishonesty is not. Being dishonest in any aspect of your background investigation is absolutely a legitimate reason to disqualify someone even if the subject of that dishonesty is sexual orientation or gender identity. And once you document a lie in one background investigation, you will likely never recover from it because future background investigations will include looking at past personal history questionnaires. Law enforcement agencies have no tolerance for lies, so don’t do it even if it means having to “out” yourself.

The background investigation usually starts with a meeting between the applicant and the background investigator. This interview involves going through the personal history questionnaire line by line. Be prepared to answer questions about personal relationships, who you have or are dating, and who you are living with. Background investigators consider a failure to disclose as an act of dishonesty, so it’s not just about being accurate, it’s about answering questions completely. Keep in mind that everything you include in the personal history questionnaire will be verified by the background investigator through interviews with the people closest in your life.

The next phase of the process where you will likely encounter questions that would lead to your sexual orientation would be the psychological exam. It’s perfectly normal and expected that you would be asked about your dating relationships, marriages, and other related topics as this phase of the hiring process is designed to be sure you are mentally stable and prepared to be a law enforcement officer. Being even perceived as dishonest in the psychological exam will likely result in you not being recommended for hire.

I heard recently from a new officer who happens to be gay about how he handled his sexual orientation during a hiring process that I think is perhaps an ideal example. This applicant was “out” at the time he applied for a position as a deputy sheriff with an agency that has never before employed an “out” deputy. In fact, this applicant would become the first “out” male law enforcement officer in the county’s history. The agency has a perceived reputation of being homophobic and very conservative. He made it through the background investigation and psychological exam. The last step was an interview with the under-sheriff, a captain, and a lieutenant. Now, I can tell you he was concerned about how it would all go, especially about his sexual orientation, but he approached the interview with total confidence. This applicant had been a cadet with a neighboring agency. The last question he was asked was why he wanted to work for the sheriff’s department and not the agency where he served as a cadet. The applicant responded with something like, “well I think the other agency would have a problem with my sexual orientation, but I know it won’t be a problem here.” He looked each of the interviewers directly in the eye as he said this and at that moment demonstrated that this “secret” was no secret and would have no power against him. He demonstrated confidence and comfort with himself and made it known that his being gay was not an issue.  Granted this applicant was applying for an agency in a state with full employment protection, but by putting the agency on notice, he not only took away any question, he insulated himself from potential discrimination right up front. In his particular case, I think this was a brilliant move.

Now if, for whatever reason, you don’t end up coming out formally during the hiring process, plan ahead for how you are going to handle the normal types of questions about your personal life that you will encounter once hired and on the job. As would likely occur in any job, your co-workers will want to get to know you, so answering the “normal” questions about what did on your weekend or if you are married or seeing anyone should be expected. Of course, you can ignore the questions or brush them off, but of course, the risk then is being labeled as a “non-team player” or someone who doesn’t fit in will go way up. Ultimately, you will have to decide for yourself how to respond, but in all cases don’t lie. Don’t create a fictitious opposite gender friend or spouse, because at some point and place, someone from your work place will see you out with your true partner and then your lie will be discovered. Rumors will then spread about you and you risk being labeled as dishonest. The question for you is which would play out as a worst case? Coming out as gay or being labels as dishonest?

So to the original question of when you should come in the hiring process? Clearly it’s a personal decision, but my recommendation is to be yourself – your real self. Respond to the many questions you will face honestly and openly. You don’t need to volunteer information you are not comfortable with, but don’t deny who you are, don’t lie, and don’t hide anything. In the end, you won’t truly be happy working for an organization that is homophobic or un-accepting of gay people, so if you are eliminated in the hiring process because you are LGBT, then so be it. There are a growing number of professional law enforcement organizations out there who will embrace this aspect of your identity.

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