Out at work: how Irish companies celebrate diversity
Workplace initiatives against homophobia and transphobia are good for business
“It’s not so much about overt homophobia or transphobia at this juncture but more about awareness and unconscious bias.” Photograph: iStock
Homophobia and transphobia can lead to prejudice and exclusion in the workplace, but several Irish companies have put in place initiatives to educate and celebrate all of their employees, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.
The events of recent years have seen people become much more aware of equality and of LGBTI issues, says Maria Hegarty, managing director of Equality Strategies.
“What our country did in terms of leadership around marriage equality raised a lot of discussions in organisations. More people are aware and much more willing to ask about using the correct terminology and ask how they need to adapt,” she says.
Hegarty adds that most of the companies she works with have very good LGBTI networks throughout their organisation, or have established successful employee engagement groups.
“I don’t experience homophobia or transphobia among my clients – I am not sure those terms apply as much anymore. People may be curious or might say they don’t understand, but when it comes to an inherent fear I don’t see it as much these days.”
“It’s not so much about overt homophobia or transphobia at this juncture but more about awareness and unconscious bias. It is a focus on visibility and positive well-being right now in this space.”
Bank of Ireland has an extensive inclusion and diversity strategy, with a significant LGBT+ component, she explains. “We also have our own WithPride network within BoI, which is a colleague-led network.”
The bank’s gender identity and transitioning in the workplace policy was also launched last year. “That was to support our trans colleagues as well as providing practical information and advice for them and their teams as they organise workplace aspects of their own transition,” says O’Brien.
And this is happening both north and south: the bank was a signatory of the Business Support for Marriage Equality in Northern Ireland recently. “That’s very much in keeping with our own values as employers – we are all striving to attract and retain the best talent in Northern Ireland,” says O’Brien.
The bank puts its money where its mouth is – it has just sponsored Dublin Pride for the fourth year running, and provides financial and other supports to youth LGBT group BeLonG To.
But it isn’t just focused on employees: O’Brien outlines how a recent marketing campaign with a wedding theme included LGBT couples. “We worked to ensure that it wasn’t all straight couples, that it represented all couples getting married. It is about making our own workplaces and work practices LGBTI-inclusive but also we are reflecting broader society back to our customers.”
Companies are working harder to ensure the message of what is appropriate within the workplace is communicated during training and recruitment. Specific equality policies are also becoming commonplace.
For Kate Fergusson, head of responsible business at law firm Pinsent Masons, it is all about ensuring staff can be themselves. “We want them to feel comfortable and safe whatever their gender identity or expression or their sexual orientation,” she says. “There is a very strong business case for that.”
According to Fergusson, Pinsent Masons has had a strong commitment at senior level to diversity and inclusion for many years; in 2008 it became the first law firm recognised on the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index in the UK.
“There was a major effort by senior leadership to ensure people could be out and talk about their home lives and partners without any fear or worry about how they would be perceived or indeed their career progression,” she explains.
The past decade has seen Pinsent Masons work to develop and maintain that culture. As a global employer, however, that can bring challenges when it comes to LGBT inclusion as there are different legal regulations and different cultural issues in each jurisdiction.
“We do our very best to make sure it is in place in all of our offices across the world,” says Fergusson.
Pinsent Masons has a well-established equal opportunities and diversity policy, as well as a dignity-at-work policy, but the right attitudes are embedded early on in any employee’s time at the company, according to Fergusson.
“Those policies ensure it’s clear we have a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment from an LGBT perspective but much more than that, we have put in place a very comprehensive training programme, including inclusive leadership and inclusive workplace training programmes that will be rolled out globally.”
The law firm also has an innovative “Allies” network, which works to support LGBT colleagues and share initiatives and best practice.
“The Allies have been a very important development for us. We have a pledge, where we ask people to sign up to a number of commitments that they make as Allies, to stand up against transphobic, homophobic, and biphobic banter in the workplace. We don’t stand for that as an organisation and we want our Allies to help us ensure that,” says Fergusson.
Darren O’Toole, from asset management firm Intertrust Group, speaks glowingly of the “bubble” he experiences working in a diverse and inclusive company.
“We are quite lucky in that we are quite a young company and we naturally have a diverse workforce as we are all quite young.”
The global corporate management company used this as a platform to build its diversity initiative in Ireland, and it has been extremely active both within the workplace and when it comes to engaging with external community groups and organisations.
Intertrust recently hosted a charity ball in aid of BeLonG To, raising €5,000 for the youth LGBT community.
“We also invited speakers in and they gave a short presentation on the modern terminology used around gender and expression, as well as homophobia in the workplace. Almost everyone in the company attended,” he notes.
O’Toole, who is gay, agrees with O’Brien and Hegarty that homophobia and transphobia are rarer these days; rather he says there is a sense of curiosity and an eagerness to understand.
“I like to think it doesn’t exist anymore. I have never experienced it although I have heard stories from other workplaces. Perhaps there is a lot of work to do in wider society when it comes to trans issues, but with homophobia I like to think we are nearly there.”