Last updated: May 29, 2013 5:23 pm

Corporate, not closeted

Every hue: a Heritage of Pride march adds colour to New York

Two years ago Beth Brooke, global vice-chair at Ernst & Young, the professional services company, and a former senior official in the Clinton administration, made a decision that transformed her career. She came out to her colleagues. Close friends had known of her sexuality but until 2011 she had kept her private life under wraps at work. “I avoided conversations about life. A big part of me was missing,” she reflects.

It took a request to take part in a video aimed at suicidal lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children to give her the courage she needed to speak out. The impact on her working life has been huge, she says. Instead of devoting energy to avoiding personal conversations, and being enigmatic and elusive in the office, she can be herself, so is more relaxed and, she says, fully “engaged” with her job. Nevertheless, she is keen to point out that “I don’t talk about my private life any more than I did”.

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Emma Jacobs

Ashley Steel, vice-chairman of the UK division of KPMG, the professional services firm, who is in a civil partnership and did not come out professionally until she was on the board, understands Ms Brooke’s experience: “It is difficult being guarded, it shifts your attention [from work]”.

An employee’s decision to disclose their sexuality to colleagues is a personal and complicated matter. Many companies, however, have made huge strides in the past decade to change the corporate culture in order to help lesbian, gay and bisexual employees to feel comfortable being open at work.

The Power of ‘Out’ 2.0”, a study released by the Center for Talent Innovation, a US diversity and talent management think-tank, surveyed 983 LGB employees in the US and found that 59 per cent of gay workers reported having come out at work, a 7 percentage point increase from the previous year. Both Ms Brooke and Ms Steel say that if they had entered the workforce 20 years later, they may have been open from the outset.

Postings to discriminatory countries

As companies deploy talent overseas and employees working in a global marketplace seek experience abroad, gay employees may find themselves in countries that are less tolerant than their home environment. It is still illegal to be homosexual in more than 70 countries.

“Most companies have non-discrimination policies,” says Todd Sears, a former banker who started Out on the Street, a gay leadership network. “The challenge is if countries have local customs that conflict with that central line. Companies have to be firm when they are hiring locals. They need to be clear about their values.”

Sarah Henchoz, employment partner at Allen & Overy, the law firm, says it could prevent litigation. She cites an example of a gay British employee posted to Singapore who brought a case against his UK employer because a local hire made homophobic comments about his screensaver. “Ultimately, a company is responsible for ensuring the safety of its employees, including their mental health. You could be liable if you put them under stress to go to a country which is discriminatory.”

In the battle to recruit talented employees, blue-chips and Silicon Valley upstarts attend LGB student events and extend employee benefits to same-sex partners. Professional networks exist to support LGB employees – for example Google’s Gayglers and Barclays’ Spectrum. The network Out on the Street was set up two years ago to encourage discussion of LGBT issues among senior Wall Street executives. This year it held a meeting whose speakers included Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, Irene Dorner, HSBC Holdings’ US chief executive, and Jim Turley, chief executive of Ernst & Young. Companies including Amazon, Microsoft and Google have made public statements in favour of same-sex marriage equality.

The business position was summed up by Mr Blankfein, who took a public stand last year supporting same-sex marriage in a commercial: “America’s corporations learnt long ago that equality is just good business and it’s the right thing to do.”

Commercial imperatives include the hunt for new markets. “Changing demographics require diverse teams. If you don’t have people on boards or on teams who are gay or black, then they do not understand different or new markets”, says Ms Brooke. “Business relationships are built on trust. If you look at LGBT individuals who are closeted, they are not leveraging their relationships for business. It makes them less valuable.”

Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, adds: “If companies recognise that a proportion of their employees might care about this issue, then they will be motivated to serve their interests – also with customers and others. And this caring clearly is part of the changing cultural landscape.”

Changes in the workplace reflect wider societal and political shifts on issues such as gay marriage. In addition, Ms Brooke notes that the distinction between private and public life is more fluid than a decade ago. Facebook and other forms of social media have meant that younger employees “expect openness” from managers and peers.

In some areas, companies have been more progressive than politicians. Ninety-four of the Fortune 100 companies have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, but only 21 US states have laws to the same effect. Despite lobbying by companies including American Airlines, eBay and Pfizer for the inclusion of gay rights, the US Senate passed an immigration reform bill without provisions for same-sex couples. That means gay Americans will not be able to sponsor visas or green cards for their same-sex partners in the same way that straight Americans can, which hampers a company’s ability to hire or relocate gay employees.

America’s corporations learnt long ago that equality is just good business and it’s the right thing to do

- Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs

Nonetheless, it would be misleading to suggest that there is no discrimination at work. According to the “Power of ‘Out’ 2.0” survey, a third of people who are out in their personal lives have chosen to remain closeted at work. The Williams Institute, part of the University of California, Los Angeles, found 58 per cent of LGBT workers reported that colleagues made derogatory comments “at least once in a while”. As one openly gay executive at an oil company says: “My experience has been some people are curious, welcoming and ask about your partner. Others just never, ever, ever ask you about anything in your personal life, and [exclude you from social events]. Does being gay hold me back career-wise? Probably, because I hold back and people feel less comfortable”.

Lord Browne, the former chief executive of BP, the oil company, who only came out after his relationship with a former boyfriend was exposed by a newspaper, says the culture varies strongly across sectors. Last year he told an LGBT professional networking event: “Among the many people I know in private equity . . . fewer than 1 per cent are openly gay.” There are no publicly gay chief executives leading FTSE 100 or Fortune 1000 companies.

Todd Sears, a former banker who started Out on the Street, says: “Having great policies isn’t enough. In the same way that gender equality policies have not solved the dearth of senior women, there still needs to be cultural change.” He advocates so-called “straight allies”, a term defined by Stonewall, the gay equality charity, to describe “heterosexual people who . . . recognise that gay people can perform better if they can be themselves and . . . use their role within an organisation to create a culture where this can happen”.

Straight allies might be at the very top of an organisation or a colleague in a team. It might also be a formal system such as the MD Ally programme at Goldman Sachs, which encourages managing directors to engage with their gay colleagues. Ms Steel is uncomfortable with the idea of a formal system: “I have mixed feelings about allies. It doesn’t sit well with me. It’s like we’re disadvantaged and need help. We are just regular people so why would we want help. We [don’t] need special groups of straight people to look after us.”

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