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Doing it differently: uncovering

Should you hide your true self in order to progress? GC looks at some under-the-radar areas of diversity through the lens of NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino’s work on covering, and showcases GCs promoting LGBT diversity and social mobility through ground-breaking initiatives.

LGBT and social mobility initiatives

Constructing networks

Despite having worked in sectors often considered to be ‘macho’– oil and gas, beer, and construction – Mathew Flood describes himself as ‘out and proud and fairly loud’. He's now at Ingeus, but in 2013 he was inspired to found an LGBT diversity network at UK-headquartered infrastructure company Balfour Beatty, where he was general counsel of the services division.

‘I thought to myself, I’m senior enough in the organisation now, and if I’m not going to do it, who is?’

The first step was to establish a steering committee, because for Matthew, a framework was key. ‘Getting that structure right was important to making sure there were people who were committed to making things happen,’ he explains. The steering committee was formalised with Matthew as chair, alongside a co-chair, members from HR, communications and operations, and some straight allies.

With a committee in place and ready to meet once a month, the next step was to devise its terms of reference and, crucially, a business plan. ‘We tried to show our relevance to the organisation and why we would be useful,’ says Matthew. He didn’t anticipate getting funding (although ultimately he did), but the business plan entailed identifying clear goals, such as integration with other Balfour Beatty diversity groups, launching an intranet with resources for members as well as an internet page for those on-site, hosting a large-scale event every year, and holding quarterly teleconferences for anyone who wished to join. Another goal was to attract LGBT talent to the company. ‘We wanted to become known as the most LGBT progressive of the big construction companies – so we got ourselves a spot on the Stonewall Employers Guide [put together by UK LGBT charity Stonewall]. This gets given out to universities and is available online’. Matthew discovered that choosing specific, achievable targets is vital when setting out the vision of a network such as this: ‘Pick two or three things that you know you’ll be able to do,’ he advises, ‘so you can show the business that you can do what you say you’re going to do. A real issue can be trying to change the world in a year, failing, and then everyone gets despondent.’

Another learning curve was balancing the tone of the group to reflect the diversity of its members’ own aims. As a vocally gay member of the business, Matthew had to remember that for some people, the goal was to be allowed to keep their private lives private. ‘We set up a confidentiality policy, to reassure people that their confidentiality would be protected within the network and we would not put their names on lists of attendees. We tried to create as safe a place as possible for people to meet, given the pressures of "outing" yourself.’

There was also a tonal challenge in selling the group to the wider business, to avoid being viewed as a trouble-maker. ‘If you’re holding a mirror up to the organisation, does that become a bit threatening to people? If you’re pointing out the amount of homophobic language used on construction sites, finding that balance between saying, “well, I understand it’s a bit confrontational but it is going on and here’s the evidence”, is difficult to strike.’ The secret is to add value, says Matthew – to be positive, constructive and inclusive.

The network held meetings across the country and invited non-LGBT members of staff to attend. Word spread. Matthew was selected as a top 50 business role model by UK not-for-profit OUTstanding. Balfour Beatty’s sustainability programme named him a ‘Sustainability Champion’ and ran a piece in its magazine, Space, which was the most viewed article on the intranet that year. From there, the message even reached the US, where an employee was moved to create his own group. Non-LGBT members of staff signed up as allies for a whole range of reasons. ‘We had one man whose son had come out to him but not to the wider world, so he wanted to come along to champion his son’s rights and get a better understanding,’ Matthew recalls. Senior sponsors proved another effective way of promoting the network, and champions such as the head of sustainability – who provided resources to fund the intranet – and two HR directors supplied further executive buy-in.

The results were often tangible, says Matthew, who tells the story of a nervous man at the first session. ‘By the third meeting he had confirmed that he was transgender, by the fourth meeting he came as a woman, by the fifth meeting we had got a plan in place for him to advise his team at work, and by the sixth meeting, she was already coming to work as herself.’ It was ‘probably the proudest moment of my career,’ says Matthew, and proof of the power of networks to change lives. But results reverberate across the business too, he argues: ‘An engaged and empowered workforce will deliver so much more than one comprised of people who don’t feel they can bring themselves to work.’

Unexpectedly for Matthew, he even got some new skills out of the network. ‘It enabled me to work on things like communications and getting the budget and business plans together. It was a good mini-project to do as a side to my day job,’ he says. ‘It’s quite easy to be a little disassociated in your job as a lawyer because you are required to be somewhat dispassionate about the things that you’re advising on. This was all about empathy and understanding the impact of decisions upon people’s lives.’

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