Analysis: Why LGBT inclusion at work matters – and not just in the UK

Role of organisations in pushing for LGBT acceptance tops agenda at The Economist’s Pride and Prejudice event

The challenges facing the LGBT community overseas dominated discussions at The Economist’s ambitious Pride and Prejudice event last week – a 24-hour debate on the business and economic case for LGBT diversity and inclusion spanning three continents.

“How can you talk about making the business case for inclusion and diversity in places where there are no human rights?” asked Shauna Olney, chief of the gender, equality and diversity branch of the International Labour Organisation. “In 76 countries, you can be jailed because of the person you love. In some places, you might even face death.”

Even in countries traditionally thought of as more ‘accepting’, LGBT people still face discrimination at work. Salla Saastamoinen, director for equality at the European Commission, cited a recent survey of LGBT acceptance at work, which found that, on average, 60 per cent of European workers would like to work alongside an LGBT colleague.

But there are huge geographical differences: acceptance is as high as 90 per cent in the UK, and as low as 20-30 per cent in places such as Romania and Bulgaria. Inga Beale, CEO of insurance firm Lloyd’s – who identifies as bisexual – pointed out that 62 per cent of university graduates go back into the closet when they join the workforce: “Some simply don’t want to be a diversity statistic, and, while you can’t hide being a woman, you can hide the fact that you’re gay.”

With so many business leaders present, the conversation inevitably turned to the role of employers in pushing for LGBT inclusion within their organisations, and in society more widely. Most deployed one of three approaches: the ‘when in Rome’ model, where LGBT acceptance falls in line with cultural norms; the ‘embassy model’, where employers create a safe space within their organisations for LGBT employees, despite hostile attitudes in society; and the ‘advocacy’ model, where organisations use their values to change local culture.

While Claudia Brind-Woody, VP and MD of intellectual property licensing at IBM, said they used the embassy model to create a safe space for staff, Beth Brooke-Marciniak, global vice-chair of public policy at EY, admitted they had to deploy the ‘when in Rome’ model in some countries. “Our first duty is to keep our employees safe,” she said.

The ability to provide this safe haven – or not – has the potential to halt the progress of LGBT talent who are looking to advance their careers overseas. “Employees must not feel that being LGBT restricts their ability to work abroad,” said Sadiq Gillani, senior VP at Lufthansa Group. When he first joined the company’s board, “47 of the 50 top executives were German, male, over 50 and straight. There are more women on the team now, but diversity in Germany still has a long way to go.”

Personal safety during overseas assignments is also a huge concern, as the organisation’s duty of care can come into conflict with employees’ freedom of choice. Emma Codd, manager partner for talent at Deloitte, said they had to intervene to guarantee the safety of an LGBT employee who’d gone on assignment to Saudi Arabia. Despite his experience, “he’s volunteered to work overseas again”.

Delegates in the room challenged the multinational companies present to lobby governments for LGBT change. Bisi Alimi, a Nigerian gay rights activist, said: “Organisations have access to the government. There’s no way they will listen to a small group like me.”

Activist Omar Sharif Jr agreed, adding: “Businesses should not work in countries that discriminate against gay people.” The business cost of such repression, said a panel of four refugees who were forced to flee their home countries because being gay is illegal, was a ‘brain drain’ of talented LGBT workers taking their skills and expertise abroad.

Holding on to LGBT talent can be difficult even in countries such as the US, with transgender scientist and entrepreneur Dr Vivienne Ming revealing that LGBT entrepreneurs gravitate to more liberal cities. “We estimate that has caused three million jobs to move out of the south and midwest to San Francisco, Boston and Washington state,” she said. TV presenter Evan Davis later quipped: “It’s not a coincidence that Silicon Valley and San Francisco are right next to each other.”

With little HR representation on the event’s panels, discussion rarely dug into the nitty gritty of practical steps that organisations can take to support and encourage LGBT talent, at home and overseas. It’s time to stop talking about the problems, and start tackling them.


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