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BEYOND THE RAINBOW: HOW TO BE AN LGBTQ+ ALLY ALL YEAR ROUND

During Pride month in June, corporate workplaces are wallpapered with rainbows to celebrate and commemorate LGBTQ+ history. But what does real support and awareness of LGBTQ+ issues look like? And when June is over, is your organisation doing and communicating enough to let gay, trans and queer employees know you have their backs?

WORDS: ROB JONES

1st June 2022

Every June, companies recognise their LGBTQ+ employees as part of Pride month. For many, this might involve putting a rainbow over the company logo for a few weeks and inviting colleagues to tell stories about their accepting and inclusive work environment. And then it’s the summer holidays, along comes another awareness day requiring internal communicators’ box of tricks, and the rainbow goes into storage for 11 months.

The issues LGBTQ+ employees face in society and the workplace aren’t as easy to pack away.

Research suggests many don’t feel able to talk about their personal lives at work and more LGBTQ+ employees than heterosexual colleagues experience workplace conflict. For gay, trans and queer people to live their best lives and have the best careers, their employers need to make it clear all year round that they support the LGBTQ+ community.

Michael Geeleher, global internal communications director at PlayStation, says if LGBTQ+ colleagues don’t feel comfortable at work, they use up a lot of mental energy thinking about everything they say and do.

“It has an impact on productivity and morale,” he says. “It’s a massive journey to come out, however you identify, and if people feel they have to go back into the closet at work, you are not going to get the best out of them.

“Your company can either be active or passive; you want it to champion your rights and not just say they’re important.”

Internal communications manager Keith Riley joined law firm DWF three years ago, a couple of years after coming out. He was pleased to find a supportive working environment.  

“We had an LGBT helpline and confidentiality inbox, LGBTQ+ awareness was actively promoted from leaders through to line managers, and there were policies for people like me.”

Keith says that culture helped him “flourish and take my career on”.

“I could understand who I am and unpack more of my sexuality in an incredibly safe environment,” he reflects. “I hadn’t realised I needed that.”


Don’t be good – be great

It’s not enough to just have an accepting culture or for LGBTQ+ colleagues to feel everything is OK as long as they are not discriminated against. A great culture is one where the company and its leaders are vocal and visible in their support.

“For example,” says Keith, “it’s good to have an anti-discrimination policy that protects trans people wherever they are on their transitioning journey, but a great company policy will support job reassignment and office relocation. Transitioning is a huge change and a colleague might want to take six months out and have a different role when they come back. If your inclusive culture isn’t backed up in policy, the individual won’t know where to go to ask questions.

“Comms professionals have a duty of care to the business and its people – have something written down. Don’t just make people feel welcome – protect them.”

Keith is part of DWF’s LGBTQ+ network, Out Front. Part of that work involves reading through policies, championing the language and empowering people to shape their level of care.

“We go to trans colleagues confidentially and say, ‘This is what we are trying to do on your behalf. Does it feel right? Does it feel comfortable?’”

Michael is also on his company’s LGBTQ+ employee network (e-net), [email protected] He stresses the importance of IC forming internal partnerships to elevate LGBTQ+ topics.

“Internal communication is often the connective tissue between our e-nets and whoever those groups need to speak to – in HR, PR or facilities, for example, to set up gender neutral bathrooms, or change the gym sign-up form to include non-binary colleagues, or to include language about transphobia, gender identity or gender expression in our bullying and harassment policy.”


Be the voice of LGBTQ+ colleagues

Through their networks and discussions, internal communication teams must use their access and influence for good to help those most marginalised.

“If you’re going to be an ally, make sure you turn up,” urges Michael. “Internal comms is in a room where most people don’t get to be, so make sure the voices of those affected are heard, and you get across why those people need support. Remove the emphasis from the groups being marginalised to do this work. The only way you will see change is if you have vocal and active allies – straight or cisgender.”

At PlayStation, the internal comms team asked colleagues what its LGBTQ+ priorities should be.

“It came out a few years ago that we needed to support trans and non-binary people and that has informed a lot of our work,” says Michael. “We check in about whether the priorities have changed, but you only need to look at the newspapers to see where the target of the vitriol is – and at the moment, that’s trans people. We need to make sure our trans employees feel they are represented and we have their backs.”
 

Sony PlayStation sponsors Pride in London (credit: Gillen McAlistair)


Dealing with barriers

Rolls-Royce’s LGBTQ+ employee resource group launched in 2015. At the time, LGBTQ+ issues weren’t talked about within the company. International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (17 May) was one of the first awareness days around which Rolls-Royce started communicating. The response was overwhelmingly positive – but not without some resistance.

Thomas Hall, head of internal communications for global campaigns, recalls: “Some colleagues said, ‘This is counter to my own beliefs and I don’t think Rolls-Royce should be talking about this’."

In America, where Rolls-Royce’s biggest population is in Indianapolis, a Republican state, there was opposition when the company first flew the rainbow flag on site.

“It’s better to have the conversation in the open than not talk about it. Only then can we find some common ground. There were some comments that crossed the line and we dealt with those. Those opinions are not necessarily wrong, but we need to be clear on our values as a business.”

Claire Gibson, employer brand and experience manager at KFC UK & Ireland, has  learned that preparing colleagues for change is important.

“When we introduced gender neutral toilets at our head office, we were so excited, but we hadn’t taken people on the journey before we made the change,” says Claire. “It didn’t go down well and that was down to our communication. We hadn’t thought about how people would feel. We hadn’t realised it would be that much of an emotive subject.”

Resistance isn’t a reason to not do something, Claire insists. “We fixed our mistake – the comms approach, not the toilets. We went a lot more in-depth, did in-person sessions, gave people the opportunity to ask questions and took people with us on the journey.”
 

Wear Your Pride To Work Week at KFC UK & Ireland

 

Be proud all year round

Naturally, internal communication will throw a spotlight on LGBTQ+ issues during Pride month, but other dates on the LGBTQ+ calendar should be used to drive the conversation or host events. Alert employees to policy improvements in March, for instance. Bring in an external guest to share their experiences in October.

If you only put the effort in once a year, employees may feel there is no substance to your message, says Thomas.

“Talk about why you are supporting LGBTQ+ issues, the progress you want to make, the behaviours you expect, what you need to do and what you want employees to do differently. That’s what it means to be at your best. Yes, you can have a rainbow logo or a website saying you are committed to inclusion, but are your employees treated with dignity, respect and inclusion? Beyond inclusion, what experiences are people having day to day?”

When KFC UK & Ireland started its LGBTQ+ journey, it focused its efforts on Pride and LGBT History Month. Claire recalls in the early days the company wondered how much it could really say when there was little else happening.

“When you start talking, follow up with action,” she advises. “People want to see you back up statements. For example, explain how you are making it easy for people to transition at work. And our people want us to not just talk internally, but externally.

“You don’t need everything in place at once, but share and co-author your plans. Ask people what they want to see or hear.”


The power of storytelling

Internal comms has a role to educate colleagues who may not be aware of the anxieties LGBTQ+ colleagues face. Showing the rest of the workforce what goes on in other people’s lives has impact – building empathy, understanding, openness and support.

At Rolls-Royce, colleagues share personal stories and experiences in the company through the Being Like Me series.

“We had someone talk about going through a transition as a young person, their self-identification and the procedures and treatments they have had,” says Thomas. “For many colleagues, that would be the first honest account, beyond what they might have seen in the media, of what it is like to be trans; this is one of your colleagues going through this now.”

Greg Turner-Smart, Rolls-Royce’s group inclusion and diversity lead, adds: “We have had feedback that has led to support networks. On one occasion, one gay employee shared her story to a small group of 10 people and at the end of the session, a colleague came out as trans. She realised, ‘Actually I am in a safe space.’ We didn’t know we had a trans person in the audience. That’s a goal met.”

At DWF, the internal comms team encourages people to who their vulnerability.

“Educating people who are straight about those fears is going to help gay, queer and transitioning people," says Keith. "There is an opportunity to get them to walk in their shoes.”

Keith had been in a straight marriage and says he had been terrified of coming out in the workplace sooner because of the prominence of his role.

“Everyone who knew me might feel they had been lied to, and that I wasn’t trustworthy because I had hidden my sexuality. It plays on your mind and becomes a burden – will I be taken seriously for having put on a mask for so long? Would I have the same airtime with directors if I came out? My mental health went through the floor. I changed jobs thinking I could bury my feelings and start somewhere else afresh.

“Looking back, I robbed myself of opportunities, relationships and true experiences at work. Former colleagues have got in touch since I came out and said beautiful things, and that they are sorry they didn’t get to meet this side of me. I’ve not had a single message of negativity. Now I share my story so other people like me know how supportive colleagues can be.”
 

In a DWF film, Waz Navqi (above right) talks to internal comms’ Keith Riley about their sexuality and love of make-up

 

When Thomas was joining Rolls-Royce, he talked in interviews about how he and his male partner were going through the adoption process.

“I said we were trying to adopt a baby but that I didn’t know what it meant in terms of timing. The interviewing manager told me she thought what I was doing was amazing and that while she didn’t have all the answers there and then, Rolls-Royce would support me. In hindsight that was a huge test of how inclusive a company can be. Whatever policy or inclusion strategy I could have read, my experience in that moment was her reaction. How inclusive your company is comes down to individual behaviours – how we treat each other.

“If your company is a place where talented people don’t feel they can do their best work, they will find somewhere that is. If I hadn’t had the reaction I’d had in my interview, would I have seen Rolls-Royce as a place to have my career? Probably not.”
 

Dial up your LGBTQ+ culture

It’s hard to measure an improvement in culture as a result of talking more about D&I issues, but Greg says there is evidence that members of the LGBTQ+ community at Rolls-Royce feel confident and comfortable in the workplace.

“We have colleagues who have come out after having been in the closet for decades,” he says. “Someone joined in 1976 as an apprentice and came out in 2019 as a result of our employee resource group, and he has said he is happier.”

If your company is at the stage where you mostly – or only – talk about LGBTQ+ issues during June, it’s time to turn the volume up all year round.

“Doing something unexpected will get people’s attention,” says Greg. “People might come out of the shadows and say they have been waiting for someone to do this.”

“Think of new and innovative ways to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community,” urges Claire. “Make sure it’s employee-led, whether that’s storytelling or crowdsourcing. We have a Wear Your Pride To Work Week, when people don’t have to wear their uniforms – they wear their own colourful tops. It seems like a small thing, but when you go into one of our restaurants, you can feel the energy and the engagement.

“Go beyond FYI comms. What’s your call to action? How can people get involved? If you don’t think you are credible in that area, start with a statement of intent and follow it up with action and progress.”

Make sure you have substance and visible commitment to changing behaviours, concludes Thomas. “Internal communication can amplify those messages. It takes a huge effort to get people to make those changes in the business, but it makes a difference to what it feels like to work here.”

The full version of this feature appears in the printed July issue of Voice.

 

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