Talkpoint: While progress has been made, many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people still worry that revealing their sexuality at work will have negative consequences. What can businesses do to support LGBT employees?
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who are ‘out’ at work waste little energy hiding aspects of their personalities, meaning they feel more confident and progress within the business. However, many remain in the closet.
Most of Europe and the US is relatively accepting of the LGBT community; the issues that gay and trans people face here are minor in comparison to countries where displays of homosexuality can lead to prison, torture and death.
Still, 34% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the UK choose not to disclose their sexuality at work. They hide their private lives from colleagues and clients for fear of homophobia, exclusion or in case they are overlooked for valuable promotions.
Be it on the factory floor or in a board meeting; evading questions about family life can be like dodging bullets if you think that revealing your sexuality will make work relations difficult. LGBT people like myself are very aware of the fact that we live in a heteronormative society.
Transgender people, whose sexuality often has nothing to do with the discrimination they encounter, face further stigma still due to a widespread lack of understanding of the issue. Many choose to leave their workplace in order to undergo their transition.
What can businesses do to create a culture of inclusion?
It’s no wonder, perhaps, that companies have been skirting around the LGBT question, treating it as the elephant in the room. There are few ‘out’ role models to demonstrate that members of the LGBT community even exist in business.
Lord John Browne (whose recently published book The Glass Closet is essential reading for anyone taking diversity in the workplace seriously) is one of few openly gay business figures and we need more people to be as courageous as him.
As well as a wider representation of gay and trans people in business, we also need straight allies to be vocal about their backing and we need businesses to make a stand.
A company that can pledge its support to employees irrespective of their skin colour, gender or sexuality stands to benefit hugely; firstly by creating a sense of empowerment among employees and secondly by setting an industry standard that can pave the way for change across society.
Increasingly, businesses are doing that.
Thousands of Apple employees marched together in San Francisco’s pride parade in July while Burger King trended on Twitter as it launched a Pride burger.
These widely reported events spread the message that LGBT people should be celebrated and gave these companies great media coverage. However, support isn’t just needed during Pride; businesses can benefit from pledging their alliance all year round.
Using a combination of subtle signals and bold statements, companies can create an inclusive atmosphere that permeates throughout the entire organisation – and ultimately throughout society. The solutions can, as we have seen, be simple and yet have extremely positive outcomes; all that is required is an open mind and responsible leadership.
Office “banter” can establish a culture of subordination and complaints should be taken seriously. A clear message from management about the importance of diversity can help eliminate any doubts as to who or what can be made light of while recruitment processes, training and communications can help make the company’s stance clear.
Education is key, as is the desire to embrace people for who they are, not who they love. Once that is covered, the rest will follow.
There are the bolder statements that can help create a welcoming workplace for all. Gender-neutral toilets, those without a sex assigned to the door, are a clear sign that gender is a non-issue.
LGBT groups such as Barclays Spectrum can do a fantastic job of supporting employees within a bigger cooperation. Smaller companies can invite employees to attend local LGBT networking events, sponsor a Pride party or welcome speakers to share their experiences.
The opportunities are endless for any business that wants to promote diversity but change will not come over night.
Taking steps towards an inclusive workplace and measuring the results will send the message that a business wants progress, that it wishes to have the LGBT community on-board and that it is serious about diversity. That will be a great leap in the right direction for anyone, regardless of their sexuality, and it might just be the sign that makes someone feel comfortable about coming out.