Five strategies for better LGBT workplace inclusion

Experts at last week’s Economist conference provided useful insight for HR practitioners grappling with D&I

The line-up for The Economist’s second Pride and Prejudice conference – focusing on the business case for LGBT inclusion – was dominated by (mostly white, mostly male) chief executives seeking to prove to their C-suite peers just how inclusive and supportive their organisations are of LGBTQ+ employees.

But the nuggets of useful practice that HR professionals can take away and use, unsurprisingly, came largely from the LGBT contributors themselves – the ones who really know what a difference supportive employers and line managers can make. Here are some of the best bits of advice from the London conference.

1. It’s younger staff who will shift the dial on LGBT inclusion

New global research presented by the Economist Intelligence Unit revealed that young employees were the ones likely to drive change in D&I. Nearly a third (27 per cent) of more than 1,000 executives surveyed said young employees were the cohort most likely to guide company thinking on LGBT D&I. Just 16 per cent said the C-suite was the most likely to support inclusion. The women and younger employees surveyed were significantly more likely to believe that LGBT-friendly workplace policies and practices would deliver return on investment.

Robyn Exton, founder and chief executive of Her, a dating app for queer, bisxeual and gap women, said: “Millennials want real converations about diversity and LGBTQ rights. Provide a space for these conversations and clear visibility for LGBT people inside your organisations. Neworks should be well-funded and supported.”

2. Realise that not all employees will be in tune with your thinking

Although employers might embrace so-called ‘liberal’ values and the inclusion of LGBT staff, some speakers warned that organisations need to be pragmatic about the rate of change. Simply put, some employees might not be ready to accept gay colleagues, whether that’s because of religious or cultural reasons.

Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, was refreshingly pragmatic. “We’re the largest LGBT employer in the country, but a lot of change has to happen at a local level,” he said. “Some changes are enduring – such as societal attitudes towards sexuality and marriage equality. [But] sometimes you have a groups of staff with a strong religion/race that is in conflict with your ideas around sexuality. As an employer, we reflect the communities we serve.”

The situation is even more complex abroad. Mark Anderson, executive vice president  (customer) at Virgin Atlantic Airways, said the company felt a real responsibility to support its LGBT customers and employers. “In countries where being gay is illegal, there is a big moral responsibility that the working environment for those colleagues is the same as in the UK. The policies, processes and culture must be the same. That’s very easy to say and difficult to do. You can’t rely on a handbook; you have to be in those offices and communities.

“If you get it wrong, you might make it worse for your employees. You have to balance trying to get it right internally and the responsibility to change societies.”

Steve Wardlaw, chairman of Emerald Life – whose insurance products include a number designed for LGBT people and families –  recommended tailoring your equality efforts to each jurisdiction you’re working in. “In Saudi Arabia, where men and women are still segregated, you can’t start asking people what their preferred pronouns are,” he said. “You can’t jump straight in with LGBT equality – you might have to talk about equality more generally.”

3. Be visible and transparent about your inclusion strategy

Harry Briggs, partner at BGF Ventures, said that having LGBT allies within your organisation is particularly important at smaller companies that might not have a group of, or even any, gay employees. “You need to have someone representing LGBT interests even if there isn’t anyone, so that it’s on the agenda and there is someone to talk to [when the time comes],” he said.  “Every start-up needs to make sure that D&I is part of its values from the start – it can’t be imposed later.”

Allies are particularly important at a senior level, added Claudia Brind-Woody, VP and MD at IBM global intellectual property licensing, “to give the LGBT agenda a voice even if there isn’t anyone who is out at that senior level”.

4. Ditch the guilt

A lot of organisations feel “guilty that they haven’t been successful in making [inclusion] happen,” said Lucy Kerbel, founder of Tonic Theatre, which works to improve gender diversity in the arts and creative industries. “We have to make inclusion work more attractive.”

A mindset shift is needed, she added: “It’s not that [these organisations] need to be in remedial class – doing this work is about being forward thinking. Some organisations feel overwhelmed by diversity, and think they have to deal with it all at once. Start with one aspect and build up some tools and strategies, and then think about how you can apply those to other aspects.”

5. It’s ok to start small

A recurring theme across the day was the power of small actions to make a real difference. Here are just a few to take away and think about:

  • As part of the onboarding process, outline the support for LGBT staff that’s on offer and ask new starters their preferred gender pronouns – as well as putting people at ease, it’s a clear sign that your organisation is an inclusive and open workplace.
  • Be less ‘monochromatic’ in how you consider diversity: people have multiple characteristics; eg it might feel different to be black and straight compared to black and gay.
  • Be vulnerable and admit that you don’t know everything, and learn from those who know more than you. Meaningful reverse mentoring can help.
  • Consider setting up your HR system so staff can self-identify as LGBT. Then cross-reference that data with your top talent. How are you doing?
  • Check your benefits: are they appropriate for LGBT employees and families? For example, does your health insurer cover same-sex couples? If not, demand more or switch suppliers.