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Do we need a business case for LGBT inclusion?

A panel at The Economist's Pride and Prejudice LGBT Summit discussed whether organisations still need to make a business case for diversity

Companies should move away from advocating the business case for LGBT inclusion, according to chief executive of Vodafone Vittorio Colao.

Speaking at The Economist’s Pride and Prejudice LGBT Summit, Colao explained that businesses should start speaking up on human rights issues rather than focusing on the benefits to businesses.

“I’m tired of talking about the business case for diversity. What if there isn’t a business case? When it comes to diversity and inclusion we should do it because it’s right, full stop,” he said.

Calao cited research from Stonewall showing that 20% of LGBT people feel they cannot be open about their sexuality at work.

“In business we often do not see ourselves as political people, but people in business are influential so intrinsically we are political. We need to step up and resist. I don’t care about the business case, I care about human rights.”

Chief executive at Whitbread Alison Brittain agreed. But she said that at a time when businesses are under increased pressure, championing the business case for LGBT inclusion can help keep it on organisations' agendas.

“We are in the middle of a quiet revolution with this. Younger companies in particular are not even questioning the need for LGBT inclusion; they seem to be born inclusive. The business case for diversity comes up time and time again, and we’re almost past it,” Brittain said.

“But there is the issue of priorities. Executives are worrying about Brexit, about global trade, and we need to make sure that LGBT inclusion keeps coming up as a top priority. That’s when it becomes practical; if you’re a small company there is a danger LGBT inclusion could be pushed off the agenda if we don’t keep making a case for it.”

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, said there are some sectors where progress has been slow with LGBT rights, and that making a business case is an important “first step”.

“We’re preaching to the converted here, as people who have come to this event have done so because they are passionate and committed," she said. "But that isn’t the case across the country.

"We watch Stonewall's Top Employers list very closely. We would love to see more manufacturers on that list, we would love to see retailers on it. So there is a long way to go, and making the business case is a key step.”

But businesses have achieved some headway in championing LGBT rights, Fairbairn added. “Fifteen years ago companies in the top 100 wanted to be kept anonymous, now people are fighting to get to the top of that list.”

Sue Whalley, chief operations officer at Royal Mail, recounted the challenges her organisation faced in becoming LGBT inclusive.

“We are a huge organisation; we are in every single community. We’re also very traditional and it’s been a challenge for us. We’ve undergone a huge transformation when it comes to awareness – 20 years ago we never would have joined a Pride march. We want to create a workplace where all employees feel respected, included and comfortable."