Building a more equal workplace culture for LGBT+ staff: Lots done but much more to do

A recent survey found that only 27% of LGBT+ employees are fully open at work, but more worryingly, 32% are still fully in the closet.

A smiling man outside an office building

Brendan Byrne, NXF board member and ‘Pride at Accenture’ network lead, shares Accenture’s findings on to improve workplace culture for LGBT+ staff.

Five years on from our now infamous marriage equality referendum, I’ve been having many conversations with friends and colleagues which usually centre around “Wow! I can’t believe it’s been five years!” Those conversations always make me stop and think that as a country we have made huge progress. We have marriage equality, gender recognition and varying levels of adoption rights, so everything must be better today, right?

That certainly seems to be the pervasive view of many of the conversations but, as we have seen recently, there is a troubling underbelly that suggests that all is not as good as we think it is. Look east and west of our little island and we see many people campaigning to remove or reduce LGBT+ rights.

Back in 2016, the NXF (National LGBT Federation) published the second iteration of its Burning Issues research. This noted that equality in the workplace was important to 85% of respondents and was the third most important topic after hate crime and healthcare. The research also found that 66% of respondents were out to all colleagues at work.

So, how are we really doing in Ireland five years on since marriage equality?

The latest ‘Getting to Equal’ LGBT+ research from Accenture launched this month, found that behind the outward signs of progress, there are still challenges to be overcome. The annual survey, which was completed by more than 1,700 senior leaders and 30,000 employees around the world – including Ireland – indicated that even in more socially progressive countries, discomfort abounds. Only 77 out of 195 countries prohibit discrimination in employment because of one’s sexual orientation.

In Ireland, the survey found that only 27% of LGBT+ employees are fully open at work (a further 27% are out to close colleagues) but more worryingly, 32% are still fully in the closet. Compared to the 66% who were out to all colleagues from Burning Issues 2 in 2016, it makes me feel like we haven’t made a lot of progress. Ireland is also lagging behind our global findings, where a lower figure of 26% of respondents are still in the closet in work.

There also appears to be a disconnect globally between how leaders feel compared to how their employees feel. 68% of leaders feel they create empowering environments – in which employees can be themselves, raise concerns and innovate without fear of failure – but only 36% of employees agree.

So how do we close that gap?

We identified a small group of leaders that we call the Culture Makers who stand out. This younger, gender-balanced group of people in organisations are ahead of the curve when it comes to promoting key factors that drive LGBT+ inclusion. They think and act differently to other leaders. If given the freedom, support and visibility to change the culture from the bottom-up with top-down support, their organisations and its employees all reap the benefits.

What are the cultural issues that employers should address?

Accenture’s research identified the top-five cultural issues that employers should focus on to create a workplace where LGBT+ employees can not only rise, but also feel supported, heard and understood:

  1. Leaders must talk openly about their own personal challenges and issues to convey bold leadership.

  2. Comprehensive action should be taken to ensure flexible working arrangements which are properly supported and encouraged.

  3. The workplace should be an empowering environment that allows everyone to settle in quickly and thrive from the outset. We found that 62% of employees in Ireland feel that their gender identity/expression or sexual orientation has slowed their progress at work.

  4. Acknowledge that it is ok for employees to fail at work sometimes without fear of recrimination.

  5. Employees should always feel safe raising concerns with (and about) leaders, especially when it comes to harassment and discrimination.

As the ‘Pride at Accenture’ network lead for Accenture in Ireland, increasingly I am seeing our people choose to come out at work before coming out in their personal lives. The culture that we have been building here over the past decade or more is one of fundamental equality, and similar to Ireland as a nation, sometimes we move in steps and other times in leaps. Like many other companies, we are still finding ways in which we can ensure that we are doing the right thing for all of our people, so continually listening to employees is crucial.

Our LGBT+ network started from a very small cohort of three people over a decade ago. In 2013, we launched our LGBT Ally Programme, a year after we signed on to become the lead sponsor of the GAZE LGBT International Film Festival which we have sponsored for eight years. This is alongside our participation in the annual Pride Parade (Digital Pride Parade this year!) where seeing our many colours of the rainbow creates important visibility that allows us to thrive in our personal lives.

Like most of our working lives and relationships today, our monthly network meet-ups have become virtual. Having a strong culture means that we understand the need to have our community connections in times like this, particularly with the added mental strain for those of our colleagues who are out in the workplace but nowhere else in their lives.

So, this Pride, when we think back on how far we have come, remember we still have a way to go. It’s important to remember that the referendum was not the end of our equality challenge in Ireland. Sticking to the fundamentals of an inclusive culture in this virtual world, with the help of Culture Makers, is more important than ever. Show your Pride this month and flood your social media with rainbows and unicorns!

For more about Accenture’s ‘Getting to Equal’ LGBT+ research, click here.

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