“How was your weekend?” is an often used greeting on Mondays in the office to initiate friendly chatter with colleagues but many LGBT people who are not out at work often find themselves having to change the pronouns of their partners or giving a perfunctory reply.
But that is not the ideal situation, according to diversity advocates and companies who increasingly say they want their employees to be their “true” selves at work.
Some companies such as global investment firm Goldman Sachs offers a broad spectrum of diversity training opportunities.
An example of a training programme was to have a heterosexual employee speak to a colleague for five minutes about themselves without mentioning their opposite-sex partner or children. This role-playing game is designed to help heterosexual employees understand the challenges of a gay person who is not out, explained Paul Choi, Executive Director in the Human Capital Management division of Goldman Sachs Asia and Co-Head of the company’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Network, Asia excluding Japan.
Choi was speaking at the 'The Power of LGBT Diversity in the Workplace and Marketplace' conference on May 8 in Bangkok. Organised by Fridae and sponsored by IBM, the conference is the first of its kind held in Thailand and Southeast Asia.
Each employee is required to complete two hours of diversity and inclusion training each year. Globally, Goldman Sachs offers more than three dozen diversity and inclusion training programs, which are widely recognised for their scope and innovation.
Not only is the firm’s LGBT network open to straight employees, Choi highlighted the importance of straight allies for building a culture of inclusion at the workplace. The LGBT network, which currently has 130 members across Asia excluding Japan, is one of nine employee affinity networks and interest forums globally.
While support at all levels within the organisation is important, the buy-in at top management level is as vital, if not more so, for success, both Choi and IBM’s Tony Tenicela told the audience in separate presentations on the day.
In IBM’s case, diversity is part of the century-old company’s DNA. Tenicela, Global Leader for Workforce Diversity and LGBT Markets at IBM, highlighted that in the early 1950s, IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson Jr. made it a policy to hire people based on their ability, regardless of race, color or creed – a decade before the US Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1984, the American multinational became one of the first major companies to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy. Today, IBM's diversity strategy is focused on building competitive advantage by leveraging diverse teams to obtain the best results for their clients and to generate new business opportunities.
“It is not just about doing the right thing but it must also make good business sense,” said Tenicela. “At IBM, diversity fosters innovation in the way IBM addresses the needs of our clients and helps the world work better. Given the breadth of IBM’s business across 170 countries, diversity is a competitive differentiator that enables IBM to reflect the global diversity of our customers. From a LGBT market perspective, the discretionary income of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community is growing every year, along with their presence in the workplace and marketplace. IBM’s ability to provide thought leadership to our customers in addressing constituency markets, as well as further leveraging those customer relationships to identify other business opportunities, is what makes this business model unique and effective.”
Tenicela put forth a viable business case for LGBT diversity which focused on attracting and retaining talent, fostering workforce effectiveness to deliver business results, and encouraging innovation – a value proposition that aims to stimulate business growth at all levels of the enterprise. Tenicela also highlighted IBM's commitment to building awareness for LGBT marketplace opportunities across the growth markets. Some examples of IBM's leadership in the LGBT community include the first-of-its-kind LGBT Resource Guide for Employers in Hong Kong (2010), the first Diversity & Inclusion Forum in China (Shanghai, 2010) and the 1st annual African LGBT Business & Human Rights Forum (Johannesburg, 2011).
The audience of about 40 comprising corporate executives, diversity advocates, human resource managers, academics and researchers also heard from Paul Thompson, Executive Chairman of Fridae Limited and founder of LGBT Capital, the first specialist Investment firm focused on the LGBT sector in the world.
LGBT Capital is part of the Galileo Group of companies and based in London and Hong Kong, and is dedicated to furthering LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) freedoms globally and raising awareness of the scope for Impact Investing. Last September, LGBT Capital announced a strategic alliance and investment in Fridae.
As a pioneer in LGBT impact investing, he believes in the power of combining sound commercial investment with philanthropy and social enterprise; and that investment in quality businesses can and will drive LGBT liberalisation and freedom.
“The LGBT market is a big and growing market. In more developed markets we have seen more and more businesses targeting the LGBT consumer and we believe the liberalisation of developing markets will provide a significant drive for the LGBT market going forward. At LGBT Capital we strongly believe in impact investing in that quality businesses serving the LGBT community, particularly in developing markets can also effect change for good,” Paul Thompson.
While companies may fully support their employees coming out at work, not all LGBT employees feel the desire to do so.
“Work is work and home is home,” said Santi Prasanwongwuthi, Manager at IBM Thailand’s System and Technology Group, at a panel discussion. He explained to a largely non-local audience that for many Thais, their personal life is kept separate from work and thus don't see the need to come out in the workplace.
During the panel discussion, Jeanette Estes, legal counsel of IBM’s ASEAN Global Business Services, highlighted that in the case of multi-national organisations, often there may be a disconnect between policy and implementation as policies take time to filter down from the head offices to country level. She recounted her own experience where she had started work at IBM in Thailand six years ago and found herself championing the implementation of certain policies that were already provided for in the US offices.
While workplace culture differs between countries, what multi-nationals like IBM and Goldman Sachs aim to do is to create the best working environment in a bid to strengthen its recruitment and retention strategies, and for employees to feel comfortable in bringing “100% of themselves to work”, says IBM’s Tenicela.
After all, if they can’t bring 100% of themselves to work, it would follow that they’re unlikely to give 100%.