LGBTQ+ in the workplace - unleashing one's true potential

“Coming out is going to the frontier of how authentic and transparent I want to be about who I am.”—Jevan Soo Lenox, chief people and culture officer, Stitch Fix.



In 2009, only 87% of Fortune 500 companies included terms regarding sexual orientation and only 41% included terms regarding gender identity in their nondiscrimination policies (Luther, 2009). In contrast, 91% of Fortune 500 companies today prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the percentage of these companies that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity has increased to 83% in comparison to just 3 out of 500 in 2000. Currently, all of the Fortune 10 companies prohibit discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity, this drastic change didn’t come about overnight. It was a long and painful transformation in which many LGBTQ+ individuals suffered.


In this event hosted by the LSE Business and Investment Group, the panelists explored different ways in which LGBTQ+ inclusiveness in consulting have changed over the past few years by sharing their experiences, the obstacles they faced, and the impact these changes have made on businesses.

Long lasting challenges:

According to a survey conducted by McKinsey, over 60% of LGBTQ+ respondents reported the need to correct colleagues’ assumptions about their personal lives. A common question to ask is,

" how much of your personal life should you bring into the workplace?”


Although the answer is inherently subjective, most people would prefer to keep their work and private lives separate. Yet, this gives rise to significant challenges for LGBTQ+ individuals when they are attempting to be comfortable with their identities in the workplace. Imagine walking into the office on the first day with everyone’s eyes on you— they whisper to one another, and you know exactly who they are talking about. Regardless of social or cultural differences, there exists an unwritten rule, a social norm, when we present ourselves in the public sphere. There are stereotypes that determine the configurations and definitions of a feminine body and a masculine body. For example, should you have your nails painted when you go to work? It is a green light for women, but the same behavior would be considered “unprofessional” for men. These stereotypes and fixed conceptions perpetuate and exacerbate discrimination. According to an online survey conducted by the Center for American Progress and NORC at the University of Chicago in June 2020, 50% of LGBTQ Americans reported experiencing discrimination in the previous year in public spaces, and around 35% reported discrimination in the workplace.


In the consulting industry, most problems arise within communication with clients. Members of the LGBTQ+ community have to endure difficult situations, such as seeing clients being visibly uncomfortable with queer identities, turning their heads away when having meetings over Zoom, receiving client requests to switch corresponding teams, and having to remove rainbow signs in the workplace— the list goes on. One British interviewee from the McKinsey survey recalled an instance where a client requested that an LGBTQ+ colleague be removed from the team “because they were not happy a gay person was on their project.” Handling discrimination from clients is not only challenging, but also discouraging and mentally exhausting for LGBTQ+ consultants to be committed at work.


More generally, challenges faced by LGBTQ+ in the workplace include being mis-gendered, and receiving derogatory comments.

Struggles with displaying and embracing LGBTQ+ identity in the workplace remain a long lasting challenge, and is an urgent global problem that requires companies to adopt a proactive approach, avoiding facile solutions so as to provide an equitable working environment for LGBTQ+ employees.

Positive changes that are happening


In the past few years, numerous leading companies, top executives, and international organizations have made extensive efforts to address the discrimination faced by the LGBTQ+ community.

One of the panelists, Tarique Shakir, mentioned that in 2012 the l’AUTRE CERCLE organization was established to actively promote changes in work culture, organisations, and practices to tackle sexual orientation and gender identity issues in the workplace. The organization launched an LGBTQ+ Charter that requires signatory companies to commit to creating an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ employees, ensuring equal rights and treatment for all employees ,as well as proposing numerous policy changes.

In 2017, the issue expanded to a global level. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights set up a number of new standards to eliminate discrimination against LGBTQ+ employees in the workplace. Following this effort, more companies have committed to enacting LGBTQ+ policies in the workplace that aim to protect the rights of the community..

Changes are happening in multiple dimensions. Internally, we are seeing radical changes in the recruitment process, with more mentorship, leadership opportunities and personal conversations between employees to educate and advocate inclusiveness. Additionally, there are more events and activities designed to educate and advocate inclusiveness in the workplace, and more leadership opportunities for LGBTQ+ employees. Rebecca Emerson from Oliver Wyman gave an example of how they tried to make LGBTQ+ employees feel more comfortable in the workplace by making visible changes, such as distributing rainbow stamps, putting up stickers in the office, and hosting fundraising events for LGBTQ+ charities with participation from senior leadership. Creating equality, inclusion and respect among international partners and offices is now one of the highest priorities of firms around the globe. Externally, more renowned consulting companies are contributing to this movement by producing research reports as well as survey insights that provide evidence for the importance of inclusiveness in the workplace. Ensuring that clients are well aware of inclusive corporate culture and educating the general public, raising awareness of these issues have all made substantially positive impacts.

Impact of inclusiveness in workplace

According to a study made by the Williams Institution— which summaries 36 research studies related to the impact of LGBT supportive policies in the workplace on business outcomes and workplace climate— LGBT-supportive policies and workplace climates could contribute to improvements from the following aspect of business operation:

  1. Greater job commitment

  2. Improved workplace relationships

  3. Increased job satisfaction

  4. Increased productivity among LGBTQ+ employees.


To give some tangible results in terms of economic benefits: in Australia, the tolerance of LGBTQ+ workers in the workplace was estimated to save as much as $285 million per year nationally, with an increase of 11% in staff retention and an increase of 30% in productivity (Johnson and Cooper 2015).



Furthermore, an inclusive workplace policy framework helps firms with job retention and talent recruitment. In the same study by McKinsey, it was suggested that nearly 40%of both LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ survey respondents said they had rejected a job offer or decided not to pursue a position because they felt that the hiring company was not inclusive. If LGBTQ+ employees felt that their working environment in the company would make them uncomfortable, they would have the absolute right to reject their offer, and I believe that losing talented employees is the last thing that companies want.


Most of the panelists agreed that working in a firm that establishes inclusive culture and provides a comprehensive, intimate supporting network for LGBTQ employees allowed them to be more productive, more committed at work and more likely to reach their full potential. Building up such an inclusive environment and establishing the core principle of inclusiveness not only enhances employees’ performances in the workplace, but also has a significant impact on their mental health issues and how they network with other employees, clients and partners.


Moizes Palma, chief risk officer of HSBC Argentina and an an ally executive, reflected on the benefit of inclusiveness:

“Our greatest values are respecting people and accepting them as they are. I am working to help people at all levels of our bank understand what really matters: not your sexual orientation or gender identity, but your character. The results are so significant; it’s not only about productivity, but also about lowering the number of people with mental health issues and seeing people happy at work, with no fear of being themselves. Our efforts have helped leaders and employees to work more effectively and perform to their full potential.”

Rachael Stein from BCG offered another interesting insight on consulting. A diverse team encourages the contribution of ideas from different perspectives, so that people from different backgrounds can approach problems from different angles and offer different perspectives, thereby generating a more valuable and insightful outcome for the client. More importantly, a diverse team makes it easier to build a network with the client. The client could come from a diverse industry and background, making it difficult for the consulting team to establish a connection; however, having a diverse team ensures that at least some of the team members will be able work closely with the client and build intimate relationships, facilitating more effective communication between the client and the team.

Going Forward:

With more effort from global leaders, we are very optimistic that LGBTQ+ policies in the workplace will continue to progress. One of the most important things in advocating inclusiveness is role model and leadership, and fortunately, we are seeing more leaders standing out to take up such roles. Among Fortune 500 companies, three LGBTQ+ CEOs have contributed to breaking these barriers. Following Apple’s CEO Tim Cook’s announcement that “LGBTQ people deserve equal treatment in the workplace and throughout society, and today’s decision further underlines that federal law protects their right to fairness,” voices around the world have started to pay attention to and address LGBTQ+ issues. Leadership is needed in increasing LGBTQ+ visibility in not only businesses, but also in society as a whole.



Panelists:

Thomas Weber (McKinsey), Tarique Shakir-Khalil (PwC), Dr Rebecca Emerson (Oliver Wyman), Matthew Kearney (EY), Rachael Stein (BCG), Kevin Westfield (Bain), and Sam Turnpenny (Accenture)


Citations:

  1. Aspan, Maria. “Fortune 500 CEOs Praise Supreme Court's LGBTQ Ruling.” Fortune, Fortune, 16 June 2020, fortune.com/2020/06/16/fortune-500-ceos-supreme-court-lgbtq-ruling/.

  2. Bailinson, Peter, et al. “LGBTQ Voices: Learning from Lived Experiences.” McKinsey & Company, McKinsey & Company, 20 Oct. 2020, www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/lgbtq-plus-voices-learning-from-lived-experiences.

  3. Fairbanks, Hannah. “Openly LGBTQ Fortune 500 CEOs and Who Could Be Next.” The Riveter, 29 June 2020, theriveter.co/voice/openly-lgbtq-fortune-500-ceos-who-will-be-next/.

  4. Hossain, M., Atif, M., Ahmed, A. et al. Do LGBT Workplace Diversity Policies Create Value for Firms?. J Bus Ethics 167, 775–791 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-019-04158-z

  5. “LGBTQ Equality at the Fortune 500.” HRC, www.hrc.org/resources/lgbt-equality-at-the-fortune-500.

  6. M.V. Lee Badgett, Laura E. Durso, Angeliki Kastanis & Christy Mallory. “The Business Impact of LGBT-Supportive Workplace Policies.” The Williams Institute.



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