Sexual orientation in the workplace far from being stamped out

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To gain an idea of how corporate attitudes towards sexual orientation have changed in recent years, one need only look at the history of the Stonewall Index of the top 100 employers in the country for lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

When the first index was compiled by the campaigning charity in 2005, six organisations in the top 100 requested anonymity.
Today, just six years on and a place in the Stonewall 100 is coveted by big employers, a sign of their openness and inclusivity, with the kite mark proudly displayed on corporate literature.

The 2011 Index, with the Home Office beating 378 other organisations across 25 different industries to take top spot, came hot on the heels of The Equality Act, which came into effect in October 2010. This legislation, which consolidates the 2003 Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations, provides legal protection for the UK’s 3.7 million estimated lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) employees from discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Campaigners say that many gay people are still suffering routine harassment, hostility and discrimination in their workplace.
“Just because this sort of discrimination is no longer legal doesn’t mean it no longer happens,” says a spokesperson for the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard (LLGS), a charity helpline that regularly receives calls from gay people harassed at work. There’s the factory worker facing “daily low-level nastiness” (snide remarks, items taken from his work station and social exclusion), the medical practitioner ostracised by her local community or the professional manager excluded from a new role once the existence of his civil partner was revealed.

“It happens at all levels, in private sector and public sector organisations, and can be very stressful, demoralising and isolating,” says the LLGS spokesperson. “People can be scared to report it, and then try to soldier on, but sometimes they reach a stage of quiet despair and that’s when they call us.”

Peter Purton, policy officer for LGBT at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), says it’s important not to suffer in silence. “Quite often it doesn’t take a lot to challenge a hostile culture,” he says, pointing out that employers have a legal duty to act once a problem is reported. “Sometimes it’s just one person who’s the problem, with the other workers going along with it because they feel unable to challenge this behavior. Once they see management taking action, they feel able to challenge it and help develop a more positive attitude.”

Yet making sure those employees gay and straight, feel empowered to speak up against homophobic behavior goes much deeper than ticking all the right boxes in a Human Resources exercise. “The simple function of having an inclusive equality policy will not change the culture,” says Peter Purton. “Whether it’s noisy harassment or less overt unchallenged remarks and social exclusion, it’s very easy for a hostile culture to continue because sexual orientation is invisible.”

Good employers, however, make it easy for their people to speak out by putting inclusivity at the very heart of everything they do. They make their values clear to people from the outset and make sure those values are apparent in the business’ day-to-day workings. “It’s not just about implementing a policy that sits on a shelf,” stresses Lucy Malarkey, head of neighbourhoods at Sunderland-based housing group Gentoo, which came 11th in this year’s Stonewall Index. Inclusion and diversity are part of a mandatory training programme for all staff, from board member to new trainee, says Malarkey.

“We make it very clear what our position is, what we expect and different ways to challenge homophobia. We know this can be difficult but it should not be confrontational. But you must not stand by and stoke the banter.” She highlights one case where a new employee displayed “challenging views” during their induction, which were duly challenged by the leader. “That person said they felt this wasn’t somewhere they could work. I felt that was quite a victory for us,” says Malarkey. “This organisation is all about inclusivity and if that’s not for you then you are not joining the right place.”

The message is very clear that everyone, gay or straight, needs to take responsibility for tackling homophobia. The hope is this kind of corporate thinking will see a cultural shift to match the legislative changes of recent years.

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