OPINION: Employers have to face the uncomfortable truth about LGBT+ inclusion

by Georgia Dawson | Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP
Monday, 4 November 2019 11:14 GMT

Customers speak with bank tellers at a branch of Toronto-Dominion (TD) Canada Trust adorned in colours of the Pride rainbow flag symbolizing gay rights, in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada June 13, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The misgivings harboured by many LGBT+ employees about being open about their sexual orientation at work may be justified

Georgia Dawson is Asia managing partner at Freshfields, the global law firm

It is time for employers to face an uncomfortable truth: for all the policies that many organisations have adopted around LGBT+ inclusion in the workplace, significant challenges still exist.

Research by LGBT+ rights organisation Human Rights Campaign (HRC) reveals that many lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender employees still don’t feel comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation at work.

Around 46% choose not to come out in the US, 35% in the UK, according to Stonewall.

This might seem surprising, given the growing awareness in many workplaces of the importance of diversity and inclusion, and commitments to promoting equality. The picture that emerges is one of a disconnect between companies’ efforts to support LGBT+ inclusion and how their employees actually feel.

Unfortunately, it seems that the misgivings harboured by many LGBT+ employees about being open about their sexual orientation at work may be justified. Studies show that they often still experience bias despite company policies on inclusion.

Two in five experience bullying at work, according to recruitment website Career Builder. LGBT+ employees report that they face jokes, tone-deaf comments and even discriminatory behaviour, according to research from HRC.

Moreover, these findings relate to western countries where, in many cases, laws and regulations in this area are comparatively progressive.

In Asia, where I am based, some countries still have criminal laws that only apply to the LGBT+ community or, alternatively, fail to positively protect these people from discrimination. This makes it even more likely that members of the community may choose not to be open about their sexual orientation – and even more important for businesses to show leadership by taking comprehensive action to support their LGBT+ employees.

So, if policies and mission statements aren’t necessarily enough on their own, what else should companies be doing?

There are many steps that companies can take from the earliest stages of their relationship with new LGBT+ staff members and potential employees.

Companies can spell out their inclusive values at the start of the recruitment process and ensure the selection process is fair and free of bias. They can review their benefits offerings to ensure LGBT+ employees, their partners and families enjoy the same benefits as all other staff members. They can establish networks or resource groups and invest in training and education for all employees.

Companies can also partner with external LGBT+ organisations, ensure they stay abreast of the issues, and support community initiatives. Particularly at a time when social attitudes and politics in this area are evolving, this must be an ongoing and dynamic process, not a box-ticking exercise as we continue to learn from each other and share best practices and ideas.   

Beyond organisational actions, my personal experience is that each individual makes a difference, in the same way as each person’s experience is unique.

As an ally or champion, I think we each have a role to play to truly entrench inclusive values within organisational culture. Whatever your role or position in a firm, actively listening to others and promoting open dialogue can be very influential in helping to build trust and engagement in your team. Being thoughtful about the language we use and sharing stories and highlighting positive role models is also key.

Today, there is no longer any debate to be had as to whether investing the necessary time and effort in this area is worthwhile. Research has consistently shown links between inclusive workplaces and a host of benefits including better business performance, improved retention of top talent, and greater competitiveness in the labour market.

It is of course legitimate for businesses to consider these benefits in deciding what sort of organisation they want to be. But ultimately, I hope the commitment of each business to real, meaningful inclusion is driven by a much simpler motivation – this is about equality so it is simply the right thing to do.

Amy Tye and Adam Barty of Freshfields also contributed to this opinion piece