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Workplace diversity: Employers need to focus more on LGBTQ+

We must change office culture unconscious bias which forces staff back into closet

Companies need to send clear inclusivity message with gender-neutral toilets and non-gender specific uniforms.

Companies need to send clear inclusivity message with gender-neutral toilets and non-gender specific uniforms.

 

While great strides have been made in relation to many facets of equality, diversity and inclusion in Irish workplaces, there is a sense that LGBTQ+ people may not be receiving due attention. “The truth is, as somebody who comes from that community, I suppose you can never do enough,” says Margot Slattery, global head of diversity and inclusion at facilities management firm ISS. “You can always do more to make people feel more comfortable in the workplace. Having said that, when you compare how it is now with how it was 10 years ago, it’s like night and day. But it’s still a very heterosexual world out there.”

That world can be an unwelcoming place. “The feedback we are getting at the moment is that some young people coming out of college who have been out are going back in the closet again when they enter the workplace,” she points out. “There is a lot of homophobia in the world, look at what’s happening in Eastern Europe and even in countries like France now.”

Sodexo Ireland company president Julie Ennis has noted similar experiences. “It is reality that people coming out of college go back in the closet when they start working. I know people who are not comfortable about being gay or lesbian in the workplace,” she says. “We are all human beings, and we should be able to feel safe. If people don’t feel comfortable in the workplace something is not right.”

“Obviously it’s personal to me as well,” she continues. “But there has been some real progress. Do I think more could be done? Yes, I do. But the reality is that it is much higher on the agenda for every organisation now. Not just LGBTQ+, but every facet of EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion].”

Talent retention

Her company carried out research among 300 global HR, finance and procurement leads in relation to diversity and inclusion and wellbeing, she points out. “Seventy per cent of them said diversity and inclusion has grown in importance for their employees. Employees are leading it and if EDI is not already on organisations’ agendas it will become a talent retention issue. Without question, there is unconscious bias out there. But there is training that can be done to help people become more aware. That’s a simple action to take.”

That unconscious bias exhibits itself in many forms, according to Slattery. “It’s still a very male and female world out there,” she says. “You still experience it when you’re doing things like booking a hotel and so on. Little things can irritate you. When you’re buying a car, you get asked about your husband. We probably still need to see more done in advertising. It tends to assume a very heterosexual world. We need to be more aware of the language we use. I want to be fair. Absolutely, we have seen a lot of positive things done but there is still a little way to go.”

Beyond Pride

Both agree that the marriage equality referendum represented a major step forward. “Equal marriage has been great,” says Ennis. “Ireland led on that, and people are now much more comfortable sharing their relationship status. It got the whole country behind lesbian and gay people, and heightened people’s awareness generally. It’s also great to see more organisations participating in Pride every year. That’s great but it’s just once a year. That’s not going to change the dial or create an inclusive culture among employees if you leave it at that.”

Looking at where improvements could be made, Ennis says that it would be good to have more LGBTQ+ people in senior positions who can act as role models for others to follow.

“Organisations need to ask themselves if they are doing things as well as they can,” says Slattery. “Have they got things like transition policies and policies to help families? Are they making sure people are treated the same? Great to see companies taking part in Pride but are they making equality part of everything they do?”

Ennis believes the time is ripe for change. “I work in the facilities management and catering business and a lot of our clients are making significant changes to their workplaces,” she says. “What better time to bring in changes like gender-neutral toilets, non-gender specific uniforms and things like that. They are simple things, but they matter. Visible leadership action throughout the year is the most important thing, that sends out a strong and powerful message to people.”