Empowering employees to stand up and be counted

Attitudes to sexual orientation in the workplace are changing, but there’s still more to do. By Amy McLellan

For a measure of how corporate attitudes to sexual orientation have changed in recent years, one need only look at the history of the Stonewall Index of the top 100 employers in the country for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. When the first index was compiled by the campaigning charity in 2005, six organisations in the top 100 requested anonymity. Today, just six years on and a place in the Stonewall 100 is coveted by big employers, a sign of their openness and inclusivity, with the kitemark proudly displayed on corporate literature.

The 2011 Index, with the Home Office beating 378 other organisations across 25 different industries to take top spot, came hot on the heels of The Equality Act, which came into effect in October 2010. This legislation, which consolidates the 2003 Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations, provides legal protection for the UK’s 3.7 million estimated lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) employees from discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

So far, so good. Or is it? Campaigners say that many gay people are still suffering routine harassment, hostility and discrimination in their workplace.

“Just because this sort of discrimination is no longer legal doesn’t mean it no longer happens,” says a spokesperson for the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard (LLGS), a charity helpline that regularly receives calls from gay people harassed at work. There’s the factory worker facing “daily low-level nastiness” (snide remarks, items taken from his work station and social exclusion), the medical practitioner ostracised by her local community or the professional manager excluded from a new role once the existence of his civil partner was revealed.

“It happens at all levels, in private sector and public sector organisations, and can be very stressful, demoralising and isolating,” says the LLGS spokesperson. “People can be scared to report it, then try to soldier on, but sometimes they reach a stage of quiet despair and that’s when they call us.”

Peter Purton, policy officer for LGBT at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), says it’s important not to suffer in silence. “Quite often it doesn’t take a lot to challenge a hostile culture,” he says, pointing out that employers have a legal duty to act once a problem is reported. “Sometimes it’s just one person who’s the problem, with the other workers going along with it because they feel unable to challenge this behaviour. Once they see management taking action, they feel able to challenge it and help develop a more positive attitude.”

Yet making sure that employees, gay and straight, feel empowered to speak up against homophobic behaviour goes much deeper than ticking all the right boxes in a Human Resources exercise. “The simple function of having an inclusive equality policy will not change the culture,” says Peter Purton. “Whether it’s noisy harassment or less overt unchallenged remarks and social exclusion, it’s very easy for a hostile culture to continue because sexual orientation is invisible.”

Good employers, however, make it easy for their people to speak out by putting inclusivity at the very heart of everything they do. They make their values clear to people from the outset and make sure those values are apparent in the business’ day-to-day workings. “It’s not just about implementing a policy that sits on a shelf,” stresses Lucy Malarkey, head of neighbourhoods at Sunderland-based housing group Gentoo, which came 11th in this year’s Stonewall Index. Inclusion and diversity are part of a mandatory training programme for all staff, from board member to new trainee, says Malarkey.

“We make it very clear what our position is, what we expect and different ways to challenge homophobia. We know this can be difficult but it should not be confrontational. But you must not stand by and stoke the banter.” She highlights one case where a new employee displayed “challenging views” during their induction, which were duly challenged by the leader. “That person said they felt this wasn’t somewhere they could work. I felt that was quite a victory for us,” says Malarkey. “This organisation is all about inclusivity and if that’s not for you then you are not joining the right place.”

Cameron Cartmell is a partner at accountancy firm Ernst & Young, which came third in the 2011 Stonewall Index. He was surprised when he joined five years ago to find that LGBT issues were openly talked about, with a well-established LGBT network and diversity firmly part of the induction process. "It took me by surprise as I hadn’t been openly gay at my previous employer because it wasn’t something I felt was relevant in the workplace,” recalls Cartmell, who was later asked to become co-chair of the firm’s LGBT network, the award-winning EYGLES network.

Cartmell was surprised how important the network was in terms of raising awareness, mentoring employees, connecting in different ways with clients and, most importantly, providing senior role models who are openly gay and successful within the firm. “Asking a partner to lead the LGBT network gave it real credibility,” says Cartmell. “My role moved from being leader of the LGBT network to being somebody who was seen in the firm as a leader and was also perfectly comfortable being gay, bringing their partner to work events and being themselves.

It’s so important for more junior people that they can feel more comfortable, can express themselves and be open with others. Once you have the confidence you are valued for who you are at work, you are happier, more committed to the firm and will perform to your highest level.”

Although it’s very hard to track, organisations in the Stonewall 100 report anecdotally that a reputation for diversity and inclusion has positive commercial benefits, whether it’s productivity, creativity or attracting talent. “I believe it has had a real impact on recruitment,” says Ernst & Young’s Cartmell who operates in the fiercely competitive world of the Big Four accountancy firms. “It’s raised our profile and people understand who we are, what we do and what the firm values.”

Sara Hanson, head of diversity at ITV, which this year became the first broadcaster to make it into the Top 100, debuting at 93, says young people are increasingly savvy when it comes to seeking out organisations with values that match their own. “I’ve been here for 11 years and I’ve seen a real change from graduates and people applying for apprenticeships. They used to ask how much does it pay but now they ask about our values, the experience of being in the organisation, how do we live and breathe the kitemarks.”

While broadcasting may be perceived as a liberal and inclusive industry, ITV is the first such organisation to breach the ranks of the Top 100 – while the police and big banks have long scored highly. This surprised Hanson too. “When we started the Stonewall process three years ago, we were quite surprised to find we had some work to do,” she says. “Because we are so inclusive perhaps, we had taken the eye off the ball in terms of processes, so some basics had to be improved.”

This includes monitoring sexual orientation on new staff forms. “It seems so simple but if you don’t have that basic data you can’t claim to be really inclusive. Otherwise how could we know if we were being fair in terms of promotions, succession planning, recruitment and access to training?” asks Hanson.

ITV also has a dedicated LGBT Champion in place, who runs an informal network that acts as a sounding board and rallying point for staff. Diversity champions also feed into programme making, whether it’s making sure the LGBT agenda is reflected in regional news or ensuring storylines in popular soaps are authentic and not stereotyped (last year ITV’s long-running series Emmerdale came top in a Stonewall poll to find the top soap for its depiction of gays and lesbians).

Indeed, leading employers are keen to spread the diversity message beyond the confines of their organisations. Many engage in regional and national networks, forums and conferences to share best practice and keep a close eye on the supply chain to make sure suppliers also join the cause.

When the Rugby Football League (RFL) began the process to join the Stonewall rankings (it reached joint 93rd this year), it quickly found the message spread far beyond the sport’s governing body. In fact, issues of diversity and inclusion have not only trickled out to the clubs, and from there to grassroots teams, coaches and schools, but also to the cities vying for a role in the 2013 World Cup. “It’s had a much wider impact than we could have imagined,” says Sarah Williams, equality and diversity manager at the RFL. “We have invited every host city to look at their diversity policies as part of their bid to host a match, training ground or team in 2013. Sport is one of the last bastions of homophobia and we really wanted to tackle that, particularly as we have a reputation for being a family-friendly sport.”

There’s a small but growing support network and a textline service so people can report homophobic incidents at matches straightaway without having to deal with it themselves. Leading rugby players are doing their bit, using their influence as sporting stars to spread the message, particularly with young people. “In schools there’s a culture where everything negative is called ‘gay’. It’s so insidious and we want to educate our people in clubs to tackle this,” says Williams.

It helps that Gareth Thomas, a former captain of Wales and an RFL Super League player came out as gay, the first openly gay professional player, a move that won him the Stonewall Hero of The Year award in 2010. But homophobia isn’t just an issue for gay players, says Williams. The Sheffield Eagles, for example, were the first mainstream team to wear the Tackle Homophobia shirt and straight players, such as Sheffield Eagles prop Mitch Stringer, have also been standing up and saying this is an important issue.

The message coming out of the RFL is very clear that everyone, gay or straight, needs to take responsibility for tackling homophobia. The hope is this kind of corporate thinking will see a cultural shift to match the legislative changes of recent years.



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