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Steve Wardlaw remembers the cold climate during his eight years as managing partner running the Moscow office for law firm Baker Botts.
“Russia was becoming more pro-business and we were doing a lot of work in the oil and gas sector. I found the expat community very liberal but some of my clients were not happy that I was gay,” says Mr Wardlaw. “It was a tough place to be so I told the management that I wanted my partner there full time rather than just making short trips. In the end they gave him a job as a ‘specialist’ so he could obtain a working visa.”
Mr Wardlaw, who returned to London in 2012 and has since founded specialist LGBT insurer Emerald Life, adds: “If you relocate to a country where homosexuality is illegal or frowned upon, you need to know there is a support package for you and your partner.”
Today many organisations are positioning themselves as gay-friendly employers and providing specific travel as well as health benefits for their LGBT workers. They are doing it for business as well as socially responsible reasons. Being perceived as LGBT-friendly can help an employer shed a traditional image which might turn off consumers, jobseekers and clients. Having gay role models in senior positions can also boost its reputation for inclusivity.
In 2015 Bank of America Merrill Lynch became the first company in the UK to offer private medical cover relating to gender reassignment. Lloyds Banking Group has offered the same benefit since May this year through provider Bupa, which says more corporate clients are showing an interest in gender dysphoria cover as part of their health trust schemes. Professional services company Accenture helps with hormone therapy, mental health counselling and transgender-specific surgery in North America and wants to expand this to the UK.
The real level of interest in LGBT benefits is unknown because so few organisations have developed specific perks, and those that have are reluctant to reveal any data. However, Duncan Bradshaw, director of membership programmes at UK LGBT advocacy group Stonewall, says it is a positive sign that employers are addressing this area, regardless of uptake: “Interest will be linked to how confident employees feel about accessing these benefits and talking to managers and colleagues about them.”
The way LGBT benefits are communicated will affect how an organisation is perceived. By law, same-sex couples are entitled to the same benefits as heterosexual couples but this is not always made clear to the workforce. Global media group Dentsu Aegis has reworded its adoption leave policy to emphasise that it applies to same-sex couples and includes surrogacy.
Another problem for employers is how to help gay employees access more specific perks if they have chosen not to out themselves at work. Suzanne Horne, an employment lawyer at Paul Hastings, says details of LGBT benefits must be accessible discreetly and easily. “A common mistake made by businesses is to adopt a benefit for an LGBT employee to demonstrate acceptance and support but this can in itself risk discrimination,” she says.
This advice extends to employee reward programmes. Companies should review their menu of benefits and survey their entire workforce to ensure schemes are fully inclusive. Employers must avoid stereotyping when considering which perks might appeal to LGBT staff.
Battles are still being fought. The UK Trades Union Congress is urging all companies that want to be regarded as LGBT-friendly to alter their rules regarding equal survivor pension benefits. Most defined benefit occupational schemes provide a pension to a surviving spouse when a scheme member dies. Government figures estimate, however, that 27 per cent of private sector pension schemes that provide a survivor pension treat same-sex spouses and civil partners less favourably.
Even if uptake of specific perks remains low, employee benefits are one area where companies can show their commitment to diversity — for commercial as well as social motives.