LBGTI diversity in the workplace – how can we achieve it and why does it matter?
Written by Philip Howell-Williams on October 31, 2016.
Following on in our series of Pink Season educational events, I was very excited to be involved in putting together the Economist Gallery of Numbers, a unique panel discussion on the importance of LBGTI diversity in the workplace. The event took place at the Google headquarters in Hong Kong and was inspired by research carried out by the Economist for their Pride and Prejudice event in May.
We were very proud to have an exceptional panel of experts to discuss this important topic. They were Leonie Valentine – Managing Director, Sales & Operations, Google Hong Kong, Marion McDonald – Managing Director of Strategy and Measurement, Ogilvy APAC, Fern Ngai – Director, Community Business and Robert Williams – Managing Director, Asia Media Search. The discussion was moderated by Michel Gold – Editor, The Economist Intelligence Unit.
The first question raised was how companies can create an environment where employees can feel comfortable given that many LGBTI employees are ‘hidden in plain sight’. That’s to say that LGBTI people experience many of the same problems and fears as women, minorities and those with physical disabilities but their diversity is not apparent.
It was agreed that diversity must begin with the recruitment process. Companies must make recruiters aware of the importance of diversity and inclusion and encourage best practices to raise visibility and acceptance. In addition, the awareness and promotion of the values of diversity and inclusion need to come from middle management in order to create working spaces where everybody is comfortable. Even supposedly tolerant industries such as the media can suffer from a gap between the perception that they are accepting and the reality, where negative comments about sexuality can still be the norm. Marion recounted the story of a gay man who was not out at work because of offhand comments made by his manager.
A non-inclusive environment can mean that people hide their true selves –Fern’s experience in Hong Kong tallied with this. Despite efforts from some companies to set up networks to offer support, these often do not appeal to local people that have not come out. Coming out at work is a very individual decision and some people will take the decision never to do it. That is a shame because hiding one’s sexuality means that an individual is unable to ‘bring their whole self to work’, which in turn impacts on business.
Research shows that an employee who is open about their personal life at work within a diverse and accepting environment is able to perform to the best of their ability. Conversely, when a workplace is not inclusive, productivity decreases. Fern pointed out that this is backed up by research carried out by Stonewall. So there is a financial imperative to helping employees to be themselves whether they are female, from an ethnic minority or a member of the LGTBI community.
The Economist research mentioned above involved interviewing 1000 global business leaders from 104 nations to produce a report on the theme of LGBT inclusion in the workplace. 275 of them were based in Asia. Interestingly, financial performance came just 9th out of 10 of the positive benefits of diversity based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. Other significant benefits include staff retention, employee satisfaction, workplace collaboration, performance enhancement and corporate reputation.
Despite all this, there is just one openly gay CEO in the Fortune 500 with the panel recognising that the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the more difficult it is to come out because of fears that this will impact performance and/or reputation. This is especially true in Asia. Nevertheless, half of the CEOs interviewed want to work for a company that is an advocate of LGBT rights, half also say that companies have the responsibility around change in this area and two thirds say that companies need to do more to protect the rights of LGBT staff. In some countries this may clash with the need to respect regional cultures and beliefs which 80% of those interviewed also agreed was essential.
Many multinational companies in Asia are dedicated to diversity and inclusion. Google is one example – they take their responsibility to protect their employees wherever they work in the world, making their own laws for internal use. While these do not disregard public law, they do not focus on it. The company will not operate in certain countries because of their strict anti-LGBT stance.
In contrast, it can be difficult to even start the conversation with local companies based in Hong Kong where it is still possible to fire someone for being gay. The Hong Kong government has laws to protect against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation for government departments but not for business and there is no real political will to implement change. One example is the refusal to recognise same-sex marriages from other countries such as the UK and Canada. Self-regulation is the mandate and although some multinationals generally go above and beyond when it comes to diversity there is still a long way to go.
That said, public opinion is changing in Hong Kong. The city is driven by business and when local companies can see the benefit of diversity and accept that there is a business case for it then they are more likely to drive that change forward.
Although it was generally agreed that more pressure needs to be put on to the government to bring about change, companies have to be careful to accept that as foreign businesses in Asia they need to abide by the local customs and practices and handle advocacy very sensitively. There could be serious consequences of not doing, such as losing a licence. With that in mind, most multinationals advocate for change via education and slowly chipping away at legislation rather than going at it head on. The panel discussed how business can drive change, citing the case of North Carolina where CEOs have joined together to appeal against anti-LGBT legislation.
Events such as this one prove that progress has been made over the last five years. As individuals, we can all play a part with regard to advocacy via individual conversations with friends, contacts and families. As consumers we can also support businesses which drive change using the power of the so-called ‘pink pound’.
The feedback from this event has been outstanding and we hope that Pink Season will be able to put together more events like this to really support the community. I would like to thank all those who participated.