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Alick Miskin

Grass Roots

Head of Diversity Services

Read more about Alick Miskin

Is homophobia still an issue in the workplace?


When discrimination at work against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people was finally outlawed in the UK in 2003, few predicted how rapidly full LGBT rights would come to be seen as the norm.

Even in 2007 when discrimination outside the workplace was likewise banned, homophobia and transphobia still seemed very live issues.
This situation was highlighted by several vicious hate crime incidents at the time such as that against Jody Dobrowski, whose killers attacked him so severely that he was unrecognisable to his own family and had to be formally identified by his fingerprints.
It is easy to forget that the Civil Partnership and the Gender Recognition Acts, as well as the right for same sex couples to adopt children, have all been with us for less than seven years. But the UK Government has now also committed itself to changing the law in order to allow same sex couples to marry.
UK passport forms are likewise set to change so that same sex couples, who are parents, can opt to be referred to as ‘Parent 1’ and ‘Parent 2’ instead of ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’. There are also plans to reform the strict male/female passport option to meet the needs of trans-people.
So, does this mean that homophobia and transphobia are yesterday’s prejudices? Or are Government actions running ahead of popular opinion and risking a possible backlash from certain sections of the community?
Interestingly, even among those areas of society that you might expect to be most opposed to such moves like faith communities, people seem to be generally supportive, particularly if the question focuses on ‘rights’ rather than sexual practices.
According to the 26th ‘British Social Attitudes Report’, which was published in 2010, half of those with a religious belief feel that homosexual sex is ‘always’ or ‘almost always wrong’ compared with one in five people who are not religious. But a huge 83% also do not believe that gay people should be discriminated against when accessing health and care services.
Employers of choice
People with religious convictions are also well represented among the 89% of Britons who say they would support the introduction of laws against inciting hatred towards gay people.
In the workplace, meanwhile, there is strong competition not only to be viewed as unprejudiced towards LGBT people, but also to be an employer of choice for the community. Accountancy firm Ernst & Young, for example, took top slot on charity Stonewall’s 2012 Top 100 Employers for LGB staff list in early January.
The Home Office came in second, with Barclays Bank following in third. Management consultancy Accenture also won Employee Network Group of the Year, while the Department of Energy and Climate Change was named Most Improved Employer.
But sectors such as retail and media remained under-represented, while employers in the oil and gas, construction, mining, industrial goods and services, automobile and telecoms industries were virtually non-existent.
Although perhaps not noteworthy in and of itself, the fact that these firms are much more likely to take on apprentices than the more graduate-focused employers who make up the bulk of Stonewall’s Top 100 may be a cause for future concern.
A Department for Education report that was published in November 2011, for instance, showed that large private sector companies outside of London were more likely to take on apprentices, while construction companies were the most likely to do so of all.
When correlated with the known problem of homophobic bullying in secondary schools, this section of the workforce may be an area where ‘more effort’ is needed.
According to ‘The Teachers Report: Homophobic bullying in Britain’s schools’, which was published by Stonewall in 2009, homophobia is the second most frequent reason behind bullying and it happens ‘very often’ or ‘often’. In fact, it is three times more common than bullying due to religion or ethnicity.
Posting staff overseas
On a more positive note, however, we have noticed a big up-swing in diversity training requests lately aimed at both apprentices and those who work with them from training providers such as A4e.
The other area of real concern, and over which HR directors have much less control, is the culture of specific countries to which staff might be posted. When considering whether to promote or relocate staff overseas, considering LGBT issues can sometimes be critical.
This is particularly true in companies that don’t have explicit policies and support mechanisms for LGTBT workers and where, perhaps, not all LGBT staff feel that they can be open about their sexuality.
Almost all of Africa’s 54 countries, for example, prohibit homosexuality, with only South Africa protecting the rights of LGBT people and recognising same sex marriages. Homosexuality carries the death penalty in Sudan, Mauritania, the northern part of Nigeria and parts of Somalia, however.
In Sierra Leone, the rest of Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia, the minimum sentence is 11 years, while people who are ‘found’ to be gay or lesbian in all remaining African countries are either imprisoned for shorter periods or given unknown or indeterminate sentences.
Iran, while rarely admitting to executing prisoners just because of their sexuality, executedthree men last August explicitly for the crime of ‘intercourse between men’.
But it is not just this immediate threat to life or liberty that is of concern as the experience of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has shown.
The Government department realised that, if gay diplomats posed a security risk due to the threat of blackmail, it wasn’t the simple fact of their being gay that made them vulnerable. It was instead the fear of being discovered and the impact that such revelations would have on their careers.
A potential opportunity
But by encouraging staff to be open about their sexuality, the FCO turned the threat into opportunity. They found that LGB staff, freed from the worry of colleagues or diplomatic contacts finding out, made far more effective employees.
But it didn’t happen at the press of a switch. The FCO had to work hard and change more than its HR policies. Setting up the Foreign Office Lesbian and Gay Group or FLAGG, for example, was a crucial step as it enabled LGB members to advocate for the wider interests of LGB staff and to identify and help remove the barriers that they faced.
The FCO now provides full information for LGB staff when considering foreign postings and works to ensure that sexual orientation is not a barrier to career progression.
Indeed, groups such as FLAGG and Barclay’s Spectrum can play a vital role in providing staff with the necessary support and confidence to be themselves at work as well as advising on business-critical initiatives. They can also act as a springboard for more global activity.
In a very deliberate policy initiative, for instance, President Obama has instructed officials across government to “ensure that US diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, and transgender persons” around the world.
Following up on his statement, Hillary Clinton called discrimination against LGBT people “one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time…it is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished.”
Given the reaction her speech engendered (a senior adviser to Uganda’s President Museveni said that this view would be “anathema” to most African nations, I don’t like her tone, at all”), it is salutary to recall that homophobia and transphobia are still very prescient concerns in many parts of the world.
It wasn’t so long ago that they were also very vivid prejudices in the UK, but thanks to the work of many campaigners and of organisations such Stonewall, the situation has now been turned dramatically and rapidly around.

Alick Miskin is head of diversity services at performance improvement consultancy, Grass Roots.
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Alick Miskin

Head of Diversity Services

Read more from Alick Miskin

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