Time for a work outing?

Monitoring of staff sexuality is helping organisations to end discrimination at work
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The Independent Online

Not so long ago, employers in the UK were afraid to be associated with anything gay. "Now, they realise they have to engage with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities - not just for moral reasons in terms of supporting staff, but for very clear business reasons," says Stephen Frost, director of workplace programmes at Stonewall, the gay rights pressure group.

Indeed, the "pink pound" was recently quoted as having become the "pink tenner", in recognition of the vast spending power of these communities. Stonewall says this is one of the key reasons why organisations want to appear in its Workplace Equality Index, which showcases Britain's top employers for gay staff.

These businesses have cottoned onto the fact that if they are seen to be embracing LGBT needs, people from these communities are more likely to buy products and services from them.

Frost adds that people - whether LGBT or not - are more likely to want to work for these companies. "We know, for example, that a lot of students are asking employers how they did in our index because they use it as a litmus test for how employers treat people generally. If an organisation is a good employer of gay people, it stands to reason they care about other employees too."

There is also the force of the law. The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 prevent employers from treating employees less favourably on the grounds of their sexual orientation. They also prohibit harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation. Frost explains that many companies use this as a starting point on which to base policies. "The really good ones have moved beyond simply complying to some really innovative initiatives."

He cites Barnardo's, which has a poster campaign that actively promotes the organisation as a safe zone for LGBT people. Meanwhile, PricewaterhouseCoopers' employee assistance programme enables people to specifically ask for a gay person to talk to as part of the counselling service. "It's so that they can get over the coming out thing and deal with the actual problem," explains Frost.

Sergeant Darren Oakey of Staffordshire Police - which came out top in this year's index - says his organisation gains from having a staff support group for the LGBT community. "We have also started monitoring what our staff identify themselves as - just as we do with things like gender and ethnicity."

This enables the organisation to keep an eye out for under-representation at any point of the HR process - be it recruitment, retention or promotion. The move has also led a lot more people to feel comfortable enough to come out at work. Indeed, before monitoring was introduced, between 1 to 2 per cent of staff identified themselves as LGBT. That figure has now reached 8 to 9 per cent.

Jonathan Baldrey, chief executive of the diversity recruitment company Talent, adds that monitoring on employee attitude surveys is also key. "One of the big banks discovered that there was a great deal of discomfort among gay men in the organisation - a lot more than among Muslims, which is the group they thought would feel most discriminated against," he explains.

Some organisations refuse such monitoring, on the grounds of sexuality being about someone's sex life. "But that implies sexuality just belongs in bed, whereas it has a lot to do with someone's identity," he says.

Alan Flack, UK strategic brand manager for IBM - which came out second in this year's index - says his organisation works closely with Stonewall. "We see this issue as ongoing. You can't just draw a line under it and say it's done."

Paul Cahill, chairman of the National Gay Police Association, agrees. "When we first marched at Pride in 1990, very few police officers in the UK were able to come out for fear of being sacked. Even in 2002, we weren't allowed to march in uniform. It's important to acknowledge that we've come a tremendous way since then, but there are still problems faced by gay police officers, which is reflected by the number of employment tribunals around this issue."

Patricia Oakley, head of equality at the London Fire Brigade - which also features in the index - adds, "There are definitely still challenges in this area of employment. For us, a big one is the fact that the fire service has a reputation of being a macho organisation. So whilst we've put in place policies that are changing that, we still need to work on the perception."

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