Every year, as Pride month rolls around, there is a surge in stories around ‘rainbow-washing’. Rainbow-washing, or pink-washing, is a form of performative activism, when corporations roll out the Pride flags and branding without taking any meaningful action to support the LGBT+ community.
At the same time, a recent study by Deloitte found that six in 10 LGBT+ workers believe it is important to be able to be out at work, but less than half feel comfortable doing so with all their colleagues.
The study, which surveyed more than 5,000 people who identify as LGBT+ across 13 countries and a range of sectors, found that 34% of respondents were actively looking to move to a more inclusive employer. Of this group, 39% had experienced unwanted comments or jokes of a sexual nature, 21% had received disparaging or belittling comments about their relationship status and 18% had experienced unwanted physical contact in the workplace or at work events.
There is clearly still work to be done and it begins, says innovator, founder and investor David Newns, with creating inclusive workplaces.
Why authenticity could drive company performance
When Newns sold the e-cigarette company he founded to British American Tobacco for £150m he became one of the youngest executives in the FTSE 100. But success doesn’t always bring security with it.
“I didn’t feel comfortable coming out there,” he says. “In my mind, I couldn’t be authentic and in the end I had to leave.”
This concept of authenticity is key for Newns. “I genuinely believe that being able to be authentic drives performance and delivers business results,” he explains. When he sold his next company to another FTSE 100 giant, Imperial Brands, he finally felt comfortable coming out and it proved to be the move which helped him to thrive.
“The moment I was completely open about who I was, people saw me as a leader and they really signed up to what I was trying to do,” he says.
For Newns, not only is this authenticity inspiring and attractive to the people you lead, it also frees up a great deal of energy. “You can just get on with the job at hand,” he explains.
“Veiling bits of yourself is mentally draining. You’re not able to perform well because you’re always watching what you say, thinking: ‘Did I use the word ‘him’ when talking about my partner?’”
Should modern businesses celebrate Pride?
Creating a workplace culture that allows LGBT+ staff to be comfortable and open can unlock countless opportunities for UK plc, but it is a year-round commitment. So is an annual Pride celebration important?
Newns thinks it is. “In an increasingly busy world, unless you create specific moments to raise issues and have conversations, you do miss opportunities to push yourself forward. So I do support the idea of marking Pride month.”
But, as with greenwashing or claims of support around Black Lives Matter, if Pride celebrations feel like a meaningless gesture or, worse still, a marketing ploy, it can be counterproductive. For Newns, the real wins come when business leaders are empowered to be accepting, create inclusive workplaces and make statements in their own way.
“That is much more powerful than simply sponsoring a Pride march, for example,” he says.
He cites a CEO he worked with who had a rainbow flag sticker on the corner of his notebook. At every single meeting, he would place the notebook on the table in front of him, making his views clear to whoever was in the room.
“It’s one of the most inspirational things I’ve seen in a very large corporation,” says Newns. “It’s a simple but powerful way of saying ‘this is right’ and it’s steps like that, from individuals who really believe in inclusive workplaces, that make a huge difference.”
A lack of LGBT+ business role models
Gestures such as these have an impact because they are coming from the very top of an organisation and can be seen as more significant because they are made by allies – executives who are not part of the LGBT+ community.
But this raises another question: why are there so few examples of LGBT+ corporate leaders? Of the current FTSE 100, not one single CEO has come out publicly. Surveying the corporate landscape of recent years, there are few role models for aspiring LGBT+ leaders to look up to.
This could explain why, according to the Deloitte survey, only 37% of junior employees said they were comfortable being out at work, compared with 51% of those in senior roles.
“When you’re trying to climb the corporate ladder, you want to get a lot of people to like you,” says Newns. “If there is ever a question mark over whether the reaction to you coming out will be positive or negative for that ambition, you will always err on the side of caution.
“There are those people who would be willing to sacrifice their career because of a principle, and I find that absolutely inspiring, but I would not be able to do that, personally.”
Are investors holding back UK plc progress?
Even if 51% of senior leaders are comfortable being open, that means that nearly half are not. For Newns, the driving force behind this reluctance among UK plc leaders is the shareholders. “Investors who invest in UK-listed businesses tend to be really old-school. And this is why we’re not getting tech companies listing in the UK, because of this traditional way of working, of investing.”
Therefore, if you are the CEO of a big listed company and you happen to be LGBT+, you have to weigh up how disclosure could affect your relationship with investors. If it is unclear whether or not the response will be positive, you are more likely to keep that information private. Of those surveyed in the Deloitte study, 26% worry that being out about their sexual orientation will affect their career opportunities (which rises to 29% when it comes to being out about gender identity).
“The whole culture needs shaping up to allow people to be themselves. If business leaders were able to be authentic, their performance would increase and these organisations would massively accelerate.”
There is, however, cause for optimism. Newns’ own organisation, Fearless Adventures, is just one of several looking to shake up the investment space and use funding to make organisations more progressive and inclusive. And a new wave of talented workers is bringing in a new expectation of workplaces.
“It starts when you bring people through their whole career journey, you can’t just fix it overnight,” he says. “What you need to do is set a corporate culture where you have an inclusive workplace so that the junior people coming in feel completely open. I think it’s already happening really well, it’s just going to take time for those people to move through these organisations.”
As Pride month comes to a close for another year, savvy business leaders would be wise to think about how to make their organisations safer and more welcoming for LGBT+ talent and exactly what it is they stand to lose if they don’t.