When Annie Newman joined pharmaceutical company GSK as a contractor in 2000, she wouldn’t come out as a lesbian for more than a decade. “It wasn’t because I wasn’t comfortable being out in the organisation,” she explains. “It was because I wasn’t comfortable myself. I didn’t want to admit it to myself.”
After years in the closet, in 2011 Newman saw a stall in the office run by GSK’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) network Spectrum. She stayed in touch with a colleague from the stand, who helped her embrace her sexuality. “This connection was invaluable and gave me the courage to both come out to my family and, a few months later, come out to colleagues at work,” says Newman.
Since 2019, she has led GSK’s Spectrum network in the UK. Founded in 1996, it also has branches in 37 other countries. The company is one of a growing number of businesses using networks to support their LGBT+ staff, often run by colleagues on a voluntary basis. At Spectrum, initiatives include reverse mentoring, where LGBT+ colleagues share their experiences with senior leaders, and a leadership programme aimed at giving LGBT+ employees the confidence to apply for top roles.
Why inclusion is vital to business success
Elsewhere, Lloyds Banking Group has been running its Rainbow Network for more than ten years. With over 5,000 members, the group meets fortnightly and runs various events. These include regular “bi-talk” sessions for bisexual colleagues, a monthly lesbian book club and a “T” working group that explores ways to better support transgender and non-binary colleagues.
“Diversity and inclusion are vital to our business success and to create an environment in which everyone feels included, valued and empowered to be their best,” explains Anthony Francis, a role model for Rainbow and intersectionality lead at Lloyds Banking Group.
Studies have shown that LGBT+ inclusive corporations are more successful than those which are not. In 2015, 14 leading firms, including American Express and IBM, launched Open For Business, a coalition campaigning for LGBT+ workplace inclusion globally. Same-sex sexual activity remains illegal in around 70 countries. In a 2018 survey, the group found LGBT+ inclusive companies perform better financially, with higher market valuations, greater levels of employee satisfaction and better staff retention.
Training is key to raising awareness of the challenges faced by LGBT+ staff and those from minority groups. At Lloyds, employees complete annual mandatory inclusion training, covering areas like unconscious bias. In October, GSK required all its staff to take diversity training.
International law firm Pinsent Masons’ LGBT+ Allies programme has been running since 2013, offering heterosexual colleagues training on LGBT+ issues. It provides a forum for hetrosexual colleagues seeking advice, such as how to best support a friend or relative who is LGBT+.
“Our Allies initiative has been one of the things that has made a huge amount of impact to our work in this area,” says Kate Fergusson, head of responsible business at Pinsent Masons.
Companies are also engaging with important events in the LGBT+ calendar as a means of supporting their employees and clients, such as sponsoring and marching in Pride parades. While coronavirus has paused physical events, the pandemic has not blocked support, with companies taking their efforts online. Last summer, Lloyds launched a year-round Always Proud online celebration, raising more than £10,000 for LGBT+ charities and sharing LGBT+ employees’ personal stories. Virgin and Barclays have run similar campaigns.
While there is legislation to protect LGBT+ employees at work in some countries, including the Equality Act 2010 in the UK and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States, workplace harassment remains an issue. In 2018, LGBT+ rights charity Stonewall found that nearly one in five LGBT+ people (18 per cent) had been bullied at work, while more than a third (35 per cent) have hidden their identity for fear of discrimination.
“People spend most of their adult life at work, so if we can get workplace inclusion right, it would make a huge difference in the lives of so many LGBT+ people,” says Emma Kosmin, head of workplace consultancy at Stonewall, which also runs an annual Workplace Equality Index ranking the top 100 employers for LGBT+ people in the UK.
How to get started with LGBT+ networks
Companies looking to establish their own LGBT+ networks should start by drawing up a clear list of aims, says GSK’s Newman. “Set up a charter and set out a small number of attainable objectives that you can get and then you can grow them,” she says.
David Page, executive sponsor of Tesco’s network LGBTQ+ At Tesco, advises a top-down style. “Drive it from the top, formalise it in policy, continuously develop training and get that out to as many people as possible,” he says. Lloyds takes a similar approach, where Janet Pope, the company’s executive sponsor for sexual orientation and gender identity, sits on the group’s executive committee.
It is also important to represent the entire LGBT+ community, says Page. “In common with many organisations, we’re probably strongest on the G [gay men] and so we need to constantly make sure we are doing everything we can to address the L, the B, the T, the Q, the plus,” he says.
Companies should accept that starting a LGBT+ network is a journey, says Pinsent Masons’ Fergusson. “We have learnt that we sometimes need to take a step back, to consult and ask questions in a respectful way, and when we don’t have the specialist knowledge internally, to seek external expertise and support,” she adds.
Ultimately, a workplace that embraces the LGBT+ community can mean happier colleagues and higher productivity. For Newman at GSK, having an LGBT+ network was transformative. “It actually became kind of a family to me,” she says. “For me personally, it changed my life and helped me on my journey to feel comfortable.”