Ian Johnson, Founder, Out Now

Ian Johnson is the founder of Amsterdam and Sydney-based LGBT business development consultancy Out Now. He explains the strategic importance of an inclusive workplace environment for LGBT staff uncovered by Out Now’s global LGBT2030 research, and gives some tips on creating that safe space.

In our business there are always two discussions around the motivation for creating a workplace that is inclusive of LGBT members of staff. One relates to matters of the heart, but there are also matters of the head.

As part of our LGBT2030 research, we released a study in 2015 called LGBT Diversity: Show Me the Business Case. We found that in the countries we surveyed, when an LGBT person was out to nobody at work, they were not as likely as somebody who was out to everybody to strongly agree with the proposition that they were valued as a productive and respected member of the team. When somebody was out to everybody, they became 30% or more likely to report that they considered that their team members viewed them as a productive and respected member of the team.

Inclusion pays dividends

We also found something we call the ‘staff retention dividend’ – how much more likely an LGBT staff member becomes to strongly disagree that they are thinking of leaving their current job when they are out to everybody, compared to being out to nobody. When you strongly disagree that you are thinking of leaving your job, you are absolutely planning to stay. So, for example, according to our research, if you look at somebody in France who is out to everybody, they become 22% more likely to be planning to stay with their current employer (a 22% staff retention dividend), and they also report being more productive in how they are viewed by team members.

Imagine a fictional organisation in France where everybody is in the closet and nobody feels able to come out. We know from the best available research that 6% of any workforce is expected to be LGBT. So, if you got all of that company’s LGBT employees to come out, 22% of those LGBT people (22% of 6% of the total workforce) become very likely to stay. If you had a white collar business of 50,000 employees, we calculate that you would expect to be able to save up to $6.4 million in not having to potentially replace the percentage of staff in that staff retention dividend.

It’s good to treat people with respect, but if that doesn’t grab you, the money is there if you do it well. And if you don’t compete, you risk losing top talent who happen to be LGBT to your competitors who are more effective in this space.

We released a report last year called LGBT Allies: The Power of Friends, in which we were able to show large numbers of people in the workplace who identified as LGBT allies. So you don’t just want to consider the impact of diversity upon LGBT individuals, you actually need to be focused on the fact that there is a very credible benefit throughout the organisation to positively influence the millions of people who are now happily identifying as allies of LGBT people.

Understanding on the ground

Europe is a patchwork – it really is a cultural quilt. We see differing languages and differing social approaches, but the EU has provided an overarching framework for more than 60 years, taking the lead in the area of inclusion and equal rights for all EU citizens at work. However, you can see in our reports how much culture at work affects this area. For example, France and Germany are places where the topic of one’s personal life is far less discussed generally at work, not only around sexual orientation and gender identity – it is more about personal privacy and the barrier between your private life and your work life. So to achieve your strategic goal in terms of diversity, you need to understand how culture affects inclusion on the ground, country by country.

Do not be afraid of doing some metrics. Metrics can inform great policy, but they can also measure what we call ‘activation’, to help you take the diversity budget and make sure that you’re spending it in a way that is most likely to help you keep your LGBT population on the ground. We use LGBT benchmarking to compare how effectively client organisations are engaging with their own LGBT workforce and allies, compared to our LGBT2030 national average data.

Act high, act in the middle, act local

You need top-level support – the higher the better. But you can’t just act high. Workplace culture happens when nobody is looking – the conversation in the lunchroom, or at the water cooler, or down in the engineering workshop. What we advise, particularly when working with allies, is that you need to act high, you need to act in the middle and you need to act locally. So ideally, for an ally, you should try to get the highest possible management support. At the medium level, you should connect with your line management and you should explain that you choose to be an LGBT ally, the reasons why, and invite them to be part of your team or support network. Locally, you should try and form a cluster, or a network, of allies within your immediate workspace.

The idea that culture happens when nobody is around means that anything that goes wrong is most likely to happen when the CEO is not standing nearby. Something inappropriate will be said or discussed and you as an ally have to think, ‘Do I speak now, do I say something about this being inappropriate in my view, or am I exposing myself in a way which may mean I feel threatened or uncomfortable?’ We deliver workshops to help allies understand there are different ways to respond, and apply a range of role plays to teach how an ally can communicate with somebody who they felt was inadvertently or consciously being hostile to LGBT inclusion. Our tactic is to teach how to address concerns in a non-threatening way, to help the original person understand how it might feel to an LGBT employee to see or hear what they did or said.

Acting as a bridge

I think that in-house lawyers can speak out within the profession about particular issues they face in their industry sectors. In-house counsel bring awareness of law and its role in society generally, but they also bring specific industry focus that is not as easily known by the wider profession. When a general counsel feels that there is either a problem or something good going on within their particular industry, they potentially represent a bridge back to the broader legal profession to help educate them about that.