Three lessons from EUROUT’s LGBTQ+ business conference

Speakers at the EUROUT LGBTQ+ business conference covered the challenges facing LGBTQ+ employees in the workplace and offered advice for businesses

Consider the global impact on the LGBTQ+ workforce

Several speakers discussed the challenges LGBTQ+ employees face when working in or with multinational organisations that have bases in countries where homosexuality is illegal or not accepted.

Vodafone’s group head of diversity and inclusion Karina Govindji encouraged organisations to take “an embassy approach”. “As a global company we can have principles to say it doesn’t matter if it is illegal in the country,” she said. “Whether we operate in Kenya or Europe we all believe in human rights so we can take the human rights angle in countries where it’s illegal.”

Big corporates also need to be aware of the power they have to potentially influence such laws around the world, said Jon Terry, partner and UK diversity and inclusion consulting leader at PwC. “Corporates can say ‘this law is inhibiting our talent’,” he proposed. “We might have to abide by the laws in countries but we can also push them.”

Liz Barker, Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, added that there are lessons to be learnt from history. “Look at what happened in apartheid Africa and the role companies had in that,” she said.

However, Laura Holleman, managing director and general counsel at Goldman Sachs, sounded a note of caution. “Corporates can’t change the world. We can’t put employees at risk by putting our LGBTQ+ employees in a country that is opposed to them,” she said. “We can always do more, but we also need to be aware of the platform.”

Business leaders need to regain trust

Inga Beale, former CEO of Lloyd’s of London, said that based on the Edelman Trust Barometer business leaders are the third least-trusted group of people – after only the media and politicians.

“Is it because business leaders have been quietly toeing the line of politics?” she asked. Giving the example of the recent walkout of Google employees because of the firm’s sexual harassment policy, Beale said that employees are being encouraged to say “this isn’t good enough” and so leaders “need to change and make a difference”. “There’s pressures on us from broader society and from the employee base,” she said, adding that “we can no longer stay quiet on topics”.

However, despite businesses “getting really hot into corporate social responsibility”, Beale said that this doesn’t provide all the answers.

“Is it good enough to pay money for your carbon offset so the organisation rises up the environmental rankings? Is it good enough to throw money at and have lots of words on the company website saying you’re doing the right thing?” she asked. Pointing to the disconnect between firms' marketing booklets showing a diverse workforce, while the board is made up entirely of white older males, she said “it’s no wonder people don’t trust us when you look at what we put out there”.

“It has to be genuine,” she explained, adding that “it’s not about throwing money at things and ticking things off a CSR to-do list” but being authentic and honest.

Many employees go back in the closet at work

Alison Berryman, global head of fraud operations at Barclays, explained that while she has ‘been out’ for most of her career meaning she has been able to “concentrate on [her] job”, she recognised that many don’t feel comfortable doing the same. “Many students will be out and then when they go into work they tend to go back 'into the closet',” she said.

Not feeling able to ‘be out’ at work can affect work performance, with “an LGBTQ+ person who is not out [being] 30% less productive than a person who is out”, according to Aritha Wickramasinghe, lawyer and equality director at iProbono & Think Equal.

Berryman went on to explain the need to “build that critical mass” of allies in organisations. “We need a continuous dialogue with everybody – if there is a minority group it takes a majority being involved to change the culture,” she said.

Pointing to Myers-Briggs definitions, she said there are promoters, passives and detractors. “Yes we would like everyone to be a promoter but if people are passive that’s also good,” she said. At Barclays there is a “passive population” – a whole group of people wearing rainbow lanyards. “Whether each of these people have signed up to be allies or not this visible thing is important as it’s so powerful,” Berryman said.

When faced with detractors or those opposing LGBTQ+ networks, she called on individuals to be “more mature”. “I can choose to be offended by you and exclude you or I can take the opportunity to guide and educate you, and that’s the choice for us to make,” she explained. “Sometimes we end up excluding rather than including” and this can drive more barriers between people, she added. Berryman cited language as key, in order to ensure people feel able to have conversations without fear of being shut down or getting things wrong.