Out and proud at work

Employers are legally obliged to protect lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) employees from bullying, harassment and discrimination. This group of people is safeguarded by general legislation, such as the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, and the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 specifically prevent employers from treating employees less favourably on the grounds of their sexual orientation. These regulations also prohibit harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Yet, even in many progressive workplaces where policies on diversity and bullying are clear and established, LGB people still face barriers – a fact that is backed up by a raft of high-profile legal cases. A lesbian shop worker won a claim for unfair dismissal against Next in March after taunting and abuse from co-workers led her to quit her job. This came just a month after a gay salesman was awarded nearly £120,000 for being homophobically abused by his colleagues at CP Publishing.

Understanding the problems

Stephen Frost, director of workplace programmes at campaigning group Stonewall, says: “We know from letters, e-mails and phone calls we receive that problems for LGB people in the workplace are still rife. And because almost half of the 1.7 million LGB people in the British workforce aren’t ‘out’ – meaning we don’t know about their experiences – we don’t know the full extent of it.

“The biggest learning process for me while I’ve worked at Stonewall is that the sectors you’d think are the most progressive, such as media and health, are not. I think there is some complacency there, whereas areas like investment banking, the police and professional services – which haven’t been traditionally gay-friendly – are leading the way. I think it’s because they had problems in the past, which they acknowledged and addressed.”

Among the most common difficulties LGB people face at work are homophobic insults and threats, degrading references to their sexual orientation, banter or jokes about LGB people, exclusion from activities, being the subject of rumours or gossip, having assumptions and judgements made about them because of their sexual orientation, and use of religious belief to justify anti-gay bullying and harassment. Workplace psychologist Sandi Mann says that for LGB people, “not only can this be deeply offensive, but emotionally exhausting”.

Things are even worse for transsexuals, but again, there are legal safeguards. These include the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which protects them on many grounds, including gender reassignment, and the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which gives them legal recognition in their acquired gender. From this April, the Gender Equality Duty (GED) will place a statutory duty on public authorities to proactively prevent inequality and discrimination.

However, Stephen Whittle, co-author of the Equalities Review, which reports on transgender and transsexual people’s experiences of equality and discrimination, says: “Our research found that the area of employment was the most problematic for trans people.”

Two-thirds of respondents who had left jobs after gender transition said they did so because their employer forced them to, or the conditions were such that they felt they had no choice. Harassment doesn’t stop with colleagues – 18% of respondents experienced it from customers, clients or suppliers, and some had received physical abuse.

Both Frost and Whittle believe that HR professionals are in an ideal position to ensure LGB and trans people have a happier time at work, and are consequently less likely to take legal action. Indeed, there is a growing number of examples. Among the most impressive is the Royal Navy.

Up until 2000, LGB people could be dismissed simply for their sexual orientation, so an anti-gay culture was endemic.

“When that ban was lifted, it opened up a new wealth of talent. But we still had to do something about the organisational culture,” says Commander Graham Beard, equality and diversity policy officer. “To help us overcome this, we joined Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme, where we are learning from other companies how best to take an inclusive approach.”

The Royal Navy now has LGB support groups and conferences. Equal opportunities advisers are on board every ship and there is a confidential support line. Recently, it became the first Armed Forces organisation to march in uniform at London’s Gay Pride parade.

Redressing the balance

Other ground-breaking examples of HR’s efforts in this area include JPMorgan, where a poster campaign promotes the firm as LGB and trans people-friendly, and Lloyds TSB, where the staff mentoring programme includes an option to be matched up with an LGB mentor.

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ employee assistance programme enables people to ask for a gay person to talk to as part of the counselling process. Similarly, Manchester City Council has a team of LGB conciliation officers who mediate for and support employees who are experiencing bullying or harassment.

Promoting a senior LGB and trans people ‘champion’ is one of the ways employers are showing their commitment to this group of people. Ernst & Young and KPMG both do this.

“I’m an ‘out’ gay woman and talk about it quite openly, which in itself sends out a particular message,” says Ashley Steel, a member of the UK KPMG board.

Organisations are beginning to monitor the number of LGB and trans people they employ. “We do it with gender and ethnicity, and we have learned that if you don’t measure, you can’t find out if there are problems, such as people being stuck at certain levels or if there is a pay gap,” says Anne Heal, managing director, sales, products and marketing at Openreach, BT’s local network business.

Staffordshire Police has learned that monitoring, coupled with positive initiatives, can help people feel able to ‘come out’ at work. Having first monitored its staff on sexual orientation in 2001, when 3% identified themselves as LGB, its latest survey showed 8%.

Nate Nicholson, a consultant at Academee,  which helps train organisations in diversity issues, says: “This is a win-win situation, when you consider that research shows people who are ‘out’ at work are 30% more productive than those who are not.”

Legal cases

Ten steps for HR to avoid discrimination

1 Know the law.

2 Create inclusive policies.

3 Provide definitions of bullying, harassment and discrimination against LGB and trans people in policies.

4 Communicate policies to all staff.

5 Ensure LGB and trans people feel able to report bullying, harassment and discrimination.

6 Make sure senior staff publicly support your initiatives.

7 Offer all staff diversity training, to make them aware of their role in maintaining an inclusive workplace and to understand the challenges faced by LGB and trans people.

8 Monitor LGB and trans staff.

9 Contact organisations such as Stonewall and the Gender Trust for guidance.

10 Set up LGB and trans people support groups and conferences in large organisations.

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