When Joseph Williams came out as gay in front of a former boss and client, he didn’t expect to be fired. He was dismissed, he was told by human resources, for intentionally damaging the company brand and committing gross misconduct in front of the client.
The case was settled out of court, but it’s not the only time Williams hasn’t been able to freely express his sexuality at work. In previous roles he’s been the victim of anti-gay bullying. He says: “I’ve encountered homophobic slurs and discrimination […] name calling to crude stereotyping. People still haven’t been effectively educated.”
Williams is now director of Drive (the Diversity Recruitment Institute of Value and Excellence), a social enterprise set up by recruitment firm Green Park. Drive produces research into the barriers to diversity progression in the workplace, helps its members improve diversity at their organisations and runs programmes for minority staff empowerment and development.
Meanwhile, Williams believes Green Park’s efforts to support its workers set it apart from many companies. These include offering staff free access to 24-hour counselling hotlines, training in-house mental health first aiders (people taught to identify, understand and help those who could be developing a mental health issue), and ensuring senior members of the business champion diversity and inclusion.
Raj Tulsiani, CEO of Green Park, which counts Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as a board member, says equality is part of the firm’s DNA. This starts with a focus on diversity in the recruitment stages. When searching for potential hires, whether on behalf of clients or for its team, Green Park aims for a diverse mix of interviewees. “[We] know that brilliant and diverse candidates are not difficult to find, so we run a diversity search alongside every search we take on.”
In fact, the firm has parted with clients and candidates who don’t share its commitment to inclusive recruitment practices. “We regularly walk the line between providing a diverse selection of candidates to clients and sticking to their, often unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, biased briefs,” Tulsiani says.
Some practical ways that Green Park helps clients to avoid bias include making sure that job adverts don’t exclude any potential candidates based on their background or identity, putting together diverse hiring panels and encouraging them to think about diversity at all levels of the business in order to create a path for diversity at the top of an organisation.
While inclusive practices may be a work in progress for many firms, it is illegal to discriminate against anyone due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation or transgender status. LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) employees are automatically protected from this under the Equality Act 2010 and the Employment Rights Act 1996.
David Greenhalgh, employment partner at Joelson law firm, says the consequences of not taking this seriously can be catastrophic for SMEs. “Discrimination compensation is uncapped and there is no qualifying period for protection, so a successful claim could wipe a small firm out financially.” However, he adds that new businesses can have an advantage when it comes to encouraging equality and inclusion. “Startups have the chance to be a diverse employer from the outset by getting a decent equal opportunities policy in place and having the staff trained on diversity issues.”
There’s still some way to go until all workplaces are welcoming to LGBTI employees. In a recent snap survey by myGwork, a networking site for LGBTI professionals, half of the LGBTI members that responded (70% of which were UK-based) said they didn’t think their company is inclusive. Adrien Gaubert, who founded myGwork with his twin brother Pierre, says: “Our mother used to worry that our career prospects might be hampered by being gay and there is certainly still plenty of prejudice.
And yet a diverse workforce, and an inclusive company culture, is to the benefit of businesses. Darren Towers, executive director of business development at Stonewall, which runs the annual top 100 workplace equality index for LGBTI employees, says: “We believe people perform better when they can be themselves. Businesses with high-performing staff typically have inclusive policies, benefits that apply to everyone, and a workplace culture where diversity is not just welcomed, but championed at all levels.”
This is something that Rambert dance company, which was founded in 1926, has very much taken on board. Tigho Ayovuare, general manager for Rambert, says arts companies such as theirs (which has 50 employees, including dancers) should always reflect their diverse audience. “We think the best way to do this is to employ role models from diverse backgrounds – including BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] people, people with disabilities, the LGBTI community and people of any age – to be our choreographers, dancers, composers and musicians.” Rambert also promotes diversity in its recruitment process by advertising jobs on websites aimed at minority groups, such as myGwork and Disability Arts Online.
Stonewall’s top employers include those with ample resource to dedicate to diversity initiatives: law firms, investment banks and public sector institutions. However, Angela O’Connor, CEO of The HR Lounge consultancy, says being inclusive doesn’t have to be costly or complicated. “Establishing a diversity network (pdf) is a great way of making LGBTI staff a visible element of the workforce and it can also provide a means of peer support between staff.”
A diversity network, says O’Connor, should be built and run by staff. It will need volunteers, so offering professional development opportunities for those involved could help keep them motivated. For business that want to start a network, O’Connor suggests first thinking about what you want it to achieve, and what actions it will be able to take. Next consider what the governance will be: “It’s better to sort this out early, and have the discussions, rather than promising the earth and then backtracking.” You should, suggests O’Connor, aim to get a champion on board, one who can be a symbol of leadership and give momentum to the network.
In the smallest of firms a diversity network might not be realistic, but simple gestures can still help, says Mark Greenburgh, who is a partner at Gowling WLG law firm and also gay. “Fly a flag on IDAHOT [international day against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia], put up a poster for Pride. People – gay, straight or trans – really notice these sorts of things,” he says.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Taylor, occupational psychologist at Pearn Kandola, says that managers can show inclusive leadership to all employees by encouraging input from everyone, valuing what people say and making sure everyone has the same opportunities. “A lot of organisations talk about celebrating difference, but […] true inclusion happens when everyone feels catered for.”
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