LGBT: How to be inclusive and why it can improve your business

07 March 2016 -


LGBT rights have improved significantly over the last decade, but more needs to be done before the business world can be deemed fully inclusive

Jermaine Haughton

In 2007, then CEO of BP Lord John Browne left his job amid rumours about his sexuality in the tabloids, and himself stated that it “was simply unacceptable to be gay in business”.

Nine years on, and corporate attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender (LGBT) rights have advanced markedly in global business, with the topic making the official agenda at the World Economic Forum for the first time this year.

In order to recruit, hire and retain the most talented and skilled workers - irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity - firms have begun adopting and implementing policies aimed at building an inclusive workplace.

Such policies benefit not only LGBT individuals but companies themselves, including improved stock performance and higher rates of productivity and worker commitment.

Commended for its strong workplace LGBT network and the appointment of one of the agency’s’ most senior officials as an LGBT champion, MI5 is ranked the best organisation in the country for LGBT people to work, according to the advocacy group Stonewall.

The recommendation shows strong strides made by the organisation and the marked departure from its past reputation – whereby for many years the sexuality of government employees and those operating in sensitive official roles was a particular source of anxiety.

“Diversity is vital for MI5, not just because it is right that we represent the communities we serve, but because we rely on the skills of the most talented people whoever they are, and wherever they may be,” said Andrew Parker, the agency’s director-general.

Yet while many companies have adopted these policies, many others have not.

Also highlighting continuing concern is Trouble at Work, a book by Ralph Fevre, Amanda Robinson and Trevor Jones of Cardiff School of Social Sciences and Duncan Lewis of Plymouth Business School, and published by Bloomsbury Academic.

It reveals how lesbian, gay and bisexual employees are much more likely to report ill-treatment, particularly from managers, experiencing humiliation, intimidation and suggestions that they should quit

In the largest study of its kind, LGBT employees were shown to be 12 times more likely than straight colleagues to be given hints to leave and four times more likely to be threatened. Gay or bisexual employees were also five times more likely to report violence at work compared with heterosexual colleagues, and the figures show an escalating pattern of ill treatment.

Working in a non gay-friendly business environment can leave employees feeling isolated because they can’t be themselves.

Stonewall research found that lesbian, gay and bisexual staff who worked in such environments found it difficult to develop working relationships with colleagues, with their confidence and creativity suffering.

The effort of self-censoring their behaviour was draining.

Those in the LGBT community often face different issues from heterosexual colleagues. One preconception mentioned repeatedly by gay marketers is the notion that coming out was a one-off experience.

"Coming out is a daily task. I know there are people I work with even now who will learn about my sexuality reading this article," said Mike Hoban, sales, marketing and ecommerce director at Thomas Cook. "Equally, employers need to recognise that it's not their role to pry; the question of sexuality is mine to answer, not yours to ask.

“Create an environment in which an individual can bring their whole self to work and you will be a better business for it."

Coming out at work: A senior leader’s story

Jan Gooding, group brand director at Aviva, describes herself as ticking two of the main diversity boxes.

"You are always working out when to introduce it into a conversation and when it is appropriate. It's easier to see people's colour or gender. You don't want to make a thing about it all the time. My aim, and the reason I am so involved with Stonewall, is to make it unremarkable," she said. "When I fell in love with a woman I was at British Gas, and it was out there. When I came to Aviva as marketing operations director, I chose not to be out.

“It's difficult to be senior in the City and be a lesbian - it's difficult enough to be a senior woman. So for the first year I was out at home, but not at work, and it absolutely affected my performance; I was not as effective because I was not myself. So I decided to come out and it transformed my performance and sense of happiness at work."

For many organisations, a preferred route to promoting inclusiveness and improving diversity has been to establish networks, such as for women, LGBT people, carers or different nationalities, as a way of encouraging camaraderie and support across levels and business units.

Procter & Gamble has long been held up as an example of a business with a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategy, and is one of lesbian, gay and bisexual rights charity Stonewall's founding partners in its Global Diversity Champions programme.

For the marketing community, what is so interesting about P&G's case is that it is grounded in good marketing strategy as well as good employee relations.

Ensuring brand teams have a mix of gender, regardless of whom the product is aimed at, has been central to its brand-building for some time.

Roisin Donnelly, corporate marketing director at P&G, said: "Diverse teams build business more than those that aren't - what we see is up to 5% better growth. They're also better places to work. It doesn't matter who uses the product, there will still be different people purchasing it. For example, with Gillette, 70% (of the brand's products) are bought by women."

But Dr Gillian Shapiro, founder and managing director of Shapiro Consulting said companies still need to ensure they address the root cause of barriers.

"Organisations need to look at their core culture to see the extent to which that's promoting inclusion and diversity or working against it," she says.

Business culture is raised repeatedly when diversity is debated, with some arguing that even the most visionary leader - if they are swimming against a tide of opinion entrenched throughout the business - is unlikely to be able to drive meaningful change.

Thomas Cook’s Hoban said: "It's the company culture that determines tolerance - some creative agencies struggle to be tolerant of anyone who lives outside (Transport for London's) Zone 1, never mind any other form of diversity. Look at some of the daily media to see the narrow-minded prejudice that still prevails."

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