Diversity and inclusion in the workplace has, in recent years, become a boardroom issue. There is a recognition that aside from the obvious ethical motivation, diverse organisations also perform better, according to almost all metrics and studies.

But it’s not always an easy thing to get right. It requires time, resources, sensitivity and expertise. In this series of guides, Redcat Digital explains the “how” and “why” of various different areas – each equally important – of diversity and inclusion.

This edition deals with supporting LGBTQ employees in the workplace. Attitudes towards sexual orientation have improved greatly in wider society in recent years, but there is still a lot to do, particularly in terms of policies which indirectly discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

The why

In the UK, it is illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their actual sexual orientation, their perceived sexual orientation, or the sexual orientation of someone they associate with. Employees who feel they’ve been discriminated against on this basis can in some circumstances bring a complaint in court or an employment tribunal.

But this is not the only – or even the best – reason why you should support and protect your LGBTQ employees. Alongside significant evidence that diverse organisations work better and are more profitable, there is also a scientific body of work which suggests that allowing people to “be themselves” at work makes them more productive and better employees.

In technical terms, this is called “psychological safety”, and it allows people to feel able to take interpersonal risks, perform better, be more creative and solve problems more effectively.

The how

The best place to start is the legal regime which governs sexual orientation discrimination at work in the UK. The Equalities Act 2010 defines four main types of discrimination:

  • Direct discrimination. This means treating someone less favourably because of their actual sexual orientation, their perceived sexual orientation or the sexual orientation of someone they associate with.
  • Indirect discrimination. This is where a policy, practice, procedure or workplace rule applies to all employees but disadvantages people of a particular sexual orientation. For example, a policy for maternity/paternity leave which does not apply to same-sex couples.
  • Harassment. This means conduct relating to a person’s sexual orientation which violates their dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.
  • Victimisation. Victimisation is when an employee suffers what the law calls a “detriment”, which is conduct that causes disadvantage, damage, harm or loss, because of sexual orientation.

Looking at these areas means you can assess the risk areas, create policies and take action to ensure you’re not discriminating against your employees on the basis of sexual orientation. It’s clear that not all discrimination is direct, so without taking a hard look at these different areas, it may fly under the radar.

Acas, the Advice, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, recommends creating policies which prevent sexual orientation discrimination in these areas: Recruitment; pay and terms of employment; training; promotion; discipline and grievances; bullying and harassment; dismissal.

It’s evident that anti-discrimination policies and action must take root in every part of the organisation, from start to finish of the employee lifecycle. It’s worth noting, too, that the rules around sexual orientation discrimination apply to almost all types of paid employees, and apply in the hiring process too.

“Coming out”

It’s important to remember that when people “come out”, they may not want the information to be shared beyond the people they have told. Coming out can be a difficult process, and is highly personal and different for everyone; some people are “out” in their personal lives but not at work.

If someone reveals another person’s sexual orientation against their will, this could be seen as harassment, a breach of the Data Protection Act, or a breach of employer regulations.

Harassment because of sexual orientation

Harassment can take a number of different forms, such as a simple comment (written or verbal), an offensive “joke”, exclusion from conversations or activities, or violence (or the threat of it).

From a company management perspective, it’s extremely important to take complaints about harassment seriously, and treat them sensitively. Bear in mind it will likely be difficult or upsetting for the employee to make the complaint and discuss the issue.

Organisations should ensure they thoroughly deal with harassment complaints. Aside from the legal obligations, there are also likely to be knock-on effects on motivation, productivity and morale.

Above and beyond

Most of these actions relate to legal obligations. Highly diverse organisations are likely to go above and beyond. Glassdoor recommends taking these actions:

  • Communicate a clear mission for supporting LGBT staff.
  • Develop support through mentoring, networking and employee resource groups.
  • Get support from senior staff. This can be particularly useful in employee groups.
  • Support the local LGBT community at events like Pride.
  • Offer LGBT-friendly benefits and avoid exclusion by using gender-neutral language.
  • Keep track of your efforts and successes.

Glassdoor also recommends taking particular care when supporting transgender employees. As well as all the measures listed above, employees transitioning face their own unique hurdles and so must be given additional support. Train your HR staff so they can assist transitioning employees.

Redcat Digital offers a consultancy service, leveraging its many years working with clients to find the best digital and technology talent, to help organisations become more diverse and inclusive. Get in touch here.

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