Homophobia: Out with homophobia in the workplace

Former teacher Sue Sanders spent much of 1989 vigorously campaigning on television against Section 28, the law banning councils and schools from intentionally promoting homosexuality. Little did she know it would result in her boss siding with a parent who complained that her daughter was being taught by “a lesbian”. The headmistress told the parent that Sanders would no longer teach the girl, and Sanders soon moved to another school.

Move forward two decades. In 2009 Jim Craven (not his real name), a gay English teacher at a mixed school, who is “camp as Christmas” according to a friend, was asked some very personal questions by some students during a class. They wanted to know why he didn’t have a girlfriend or wife, making Craven feel increasingly uncomfortable. He went to his boss, the headmaster, to ask for his advice and support. In response he was told to buy a cheap wedding ring and frame a picture of his sister so he could put it on his desk and pretend she was his wife.

It would appear that when it comes to the workplace, homophobia is still having a hugely negative impact on many. Not even celebrities are immune. As recently as November 2009, openly gay British actor Rupert Everett dismayed many people as he proclaimed: “I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out”.

He added that you still “cannot be a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business”.

Top 20 gay-friendly employers 2010


2 Hampshire Constabulary

3 Ernst & Young

4 Brighton & Hove City Council

5 Goldman Sachs

6 Home Office

7 London Borough of Tower Hamlets

8 Manchester City Council

9= Kent Police

9= Nacro

11= Environment Agency for England & Wales

11= London Borough of Islington

13= Merseyside Police

13= Transport for London

15 Simmons & Simmons

16 Gentoo Group

17= East Sussex County Council

17= Foreign and Commonwealth Office

19= Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust

19= West Midlands Police

Source: Stonewall Top 100 Employers 2010


Still a problem

Sanders, who since her ordeal as a teacher has become co-chair of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) organisation School’s Out, and of February’s LGBT History Month, speaks of her “surprise” at Everett’s comments. “I find it very interesting that Everett said this after Ian McKellen claimed he believes he has become a much better, more effective actor since he came out.”

After coming out back in 1988, McKellen even became a co-founder of leading gay rights charity Stonewall. Every year Stonewall publishes a list of the top 100 organsations for lesbian, gay and bisexual people to work for.

This year’s list (see box, left) saw software giant IBM crowned the most gay-friendly employer. Stonewall says it received more entries than in any previous year, indicating employers’ increasing awareness that this is an issue which needs to be tackled. Stonewall’s chief executive, Ben Summerskill, emphasises this importance, saying that the index is “a powerful tool used by Britain’s 1.7 million gay employees and university students to decide where to take their talent and skills”.

James Lawrence, communications officer at Stonewall, calls it a “benchmarking exercise to recognise good practice”, focusing on the positive actions of certain companies in this area of workplace equality, rather than singling out bad practice. He adds: “We believe people perform better when they can be themselves.”

Indeed, the latest Stonewall research suggests “concealing sexual orientation at work reduces productivity by up to 30%, and people who are out in supportive workplaces are more creative, loyal and productive”.

Ian Johnson, chief executive of gay marketing firm Out Now Consulting, agrees: “With about 6% of staff being either lesbian or gay, smart companies today understand that encouraging effective LGBT equality and diversity policies at work delivers strong returns in terms of both workplace productivity and worker retention.”

Yet more than five in 10 respondents to recent research conducted by Out Now Consulting said they felt as though being openly gay in the workplace could negatively affect their prospects of promotion.

Johnson says: “It is disturbing that more than half of gays and lesbians in the UK think that being out at work has the potential to hold back their career prospects. This is an area where UK employers clearly need to do more work.”

Cost implications

Both Johnson and Stonewall also point out the cost implications for companies which refuse to promote LGBT-friendly policies. “Losing a gay staff member because they felt uncomfortable at work is not only bad for productivity, it is expensive to replace these lost workers,” says Johnson. The latest Stonewall survey also points out that: “Prejudice has human costs for staff, but also bottom line costs for employers in legal fees, recruiting, inducting and training new staff.”

And it is not only outright homophobia which can lead to staff feeling uncomfortable at work. According to findings from Out Now Consulting’s 2010 Out Now State of the UK Workplace Report, which will be released later in the year, many of the surveyed LGBT workers spoke of their unease at undercurrents of homophobia flowing through the workplace. They commented on the negative impact of homophobic jokes, which are all too frequently bandied about in many workplaces.

But perhaps most worrying are the comments in the survey from LGBT workers who said they felt the need to keep quiet either about their sexuality as a whole, or with any complaints about homophobia in the workplace. One worker said: “If you complain, your life is made a misery.” Another said that her workplace had a culture of “don’t make a fuss or you’ll make things worse for yourself”.

Another, who was not alone in this sentiment, wrote: “I have not told anyone at work that I am gay because I don’t think that they would take it well.”

This emphasises the need for employers to promote both a work environment where LGBTs can feel comfortable to be themselves and where they feel there is a safe and effective outlet for complaints if they do come across any homophobic behaviour.

The law, at least, is now on their side. Section 28 was finally repealed in 2003 and in the same year the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations made it illegal for employees to be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

Strong union support

The TUC, which has member trade unions representing over 6.5 million working people in the UK, has been a tireless campaigner for LGBT workplace rights for many years.

Peter Purton, policy officer in the equal rights department of the TUC, believes that over the past 10 years improvements have been made. “Although the statistics may well show an increase in homophobia in the workplace, this could actually be because of the positive development of LGBT’s having more confidence to report cases,” he says.

But Purton warns that work environments where employees hide their sexual orientation can result in “terrible levels” of stress among staff. He identifies education and finance as two sectors where he suspects there is a culture of staff hiding their sexual orientation. “It is sectors like finance which promote doctrines of strong male power which are particularly difficult for gay men to feel comfortable in, and indeed it’s even harder for lesbians in these environments.”

It’s not all bad in the finance sector though. In its top 100 companies survey of 2009, Stonewall awarded Lloyds TSB the coveted top spot. Lloyds did not enter the index this year, because it is going through a huge integration programme, bringing together Lloyds TSB and HBOS. It intends to make a submission next year as Lloyds Banking Group.

Sally Evans, senior manager in the diversity team at Lloyds Banking Group, says the company has a range of policies and activities underpinning its sexual orientation strategy. From 2006 it launched a network for LGB staff. According to Sally this enables the connection of “LGB staff across the organisation to help break feelings of isolation” and also gives “a voice to LGB staff and helps to raise the profile of LGB issues, successes and challenges across the organisation”.

Lloyds also offers comprehensive training, with more than 2,000 senior managers and directors completing courses about managing diversity. Additionally, junior managers are trained in valuing differences in the workforce.

Sally says the strategy has so far proved successful, with the approach changing “hearts, minds and behaviour”. She adds: “We know that people can only be their best and make their fullest contribution when they can be themselves at work.”

Teacher training

Sue Sanders agrees that such policies would certainly help in other workplaces: “No equality and diversity training is compulsory for teachers at the moment, and I think this is major part of the problem. If we want to tackle this issue properly then we must put in the necessary resources,” she says.

And despite the positive actions of companies such as Lloyds TSB and IBM, activists like Sanders warn that there is still a long way to go. “Although we have the legislation, the cultural shift needs to be profound,” she says.

As Peter Purton puts it: “Discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation in the workplace needs to start being seen by society and employers in the same unacceptable light as discrimination on the grounds of race or gender.”


XpertHR has a range of FAQs on sexual orientation discrimination. Click here for more information. 








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