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The support of gay rights in the workplace is not new. Since the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations came out in 2003 (simplified by the Equalities Act 2010), corporates have been quick to follow up with demonstrably inclusive recruitment and employment policies for their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) workplace communities.

But many have gone further by running or supporting a wide range of LGBT activities to secure a brand reputation for being gay friendly. These initiatives range from setting up an internal network or group to provide on-going support for LGBT employees, but can also extend to targeting LGBT talent at universities and career fairs, to hosting internal and client LGBT events or sponsoring wider community initiatives such as the London Gay Pride Run.

This shift raises interesting questions over the specific benefits such LGBT programmes generate for the companies concerned, how they impact upon the broader employee population, and whether the increasing amount of time and investment can be justified for a community that amounts, on average, to just six per cent of employees.

Changing times

Simon Feeke, head of workplace at Stonewall, the charity that works for equality and justice for the LGBT community, agrees that attitudes and practices have changed quickly. He recalls that shortly after the introduction of the 2003 regulations, forward-thinking companies like IBM and JP Morgan started actively approaching Stonewall to try to understand and interpret what the regulations were asking of them. But, he adds, that this was largely about mitigating risk at that time.

Even as recently as six years ago, Feeke says that some companies wished to remain anonymous on its Workplace Equality Index, which was launched in 2005 and rates the best employers for promoting LGBT rights in the workplace. 'Now we get over 500 pieces of media coverage including international broadcast coverage, and a supplement in The Times. It's literally all over the place,' he says. 'Companies have dedicated resources and bonuses attached to increasing scores in the index so it's completely flipped on its head.'

Accenture is just one of those now competing for a place at the top. It is a 'Diversity Champion' in Stonewall's good-practice employers' forum on sexual orientation and was awarded Stonewall's Employer of the Year in the 2013 Workplace Equality Index.

'Accenture formally implemented its UK LGBT programme in 2004 and currently has 200 employees in the UK network,' says Peter Thomas, managing director for geographic marketing in the UK & Ireland. 'We have always been committed to inclusion and diversity but this programme has given us a strong internal platform by which we can raise awareness of and promote LGBT equality in the workplace.'

While the network offers on-going support, the consulting firm also conducts regular policy reviews combined with sophisticated diversity training to ensure LGBT employees feel included and respected in the broader employee community. It hosts numerous LGBT events across the country - both for employees and clients, including most recently an LGBT adoption and fostering event, which Thomas describes as 'very impactful'. And it is a visible sponsor of the wider LGBT community, supporting local charities with consulting services and skills and sponsoring a host of events including the British Film Institute's London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and National Student Pride.

Nor is it alone in such endeavours. Simmons & Simmons was the highest scoring law firm in the Workplace Index, coming ninth in the rankings in 2013. It was one of the first firms to set up an LGBT network, which now has several functions: to provide feedback to the firm on LGBT issues to give support and mentoring for LGBT staff; and, more recently, to provide business development advice for more senior lawyers with LGBT and LGBT-friendly clients.

Beyond the network, the firm also regularly reviews all its policies to ensure they are LGBT-friendly. Most recently, this included a review of the firm's parental leave policy to ensure that it properly covers adoption and surrogacy (where there might not be nine months' notice), and to remove any presumption that a child might have two parents of opposite sexes. 'We're still looking for a better word than 'paternity' leave - but the policy now covers, say, a lesbian mum who is not the birth-mother, but wishes to take some time to be with her family,' says partner David Stone.

In a move that reflects the growing importance of LGBT equality in client relationships and supply chains, the firm works with preferred recruitment agencies, to ensure that their values and approach to diversity are aligned with those of the firm. Allied to that is the firm's hosting of graduate recruitment events, which specifically targets LGBT students and graduates. 'LGBT-friendly policies are important - but not sufficient. So there are a myriad of other initiatives to mentor, inform, educate, train and promote,' he adds.

Such activities represent a welcome and powerful cultural shift among many UK employers to create inclusive environments where, as Stone puts it, everyone can feel they can be themselves. There is no doubt, either, that this effort has its own rewards for corporates. 'Accenture's diversity policy has helped to promote a more open and inclusive workplace. We've found that our people are most effective in this kind of environment, as they feel they can be themselves and don't feel the need to 'edit' what they say about their personal lives,' says Thomas. 'This level of assurance not only enhances individual performance; it also strengthens team decision making and drives innovation in our business and therefore ensures we bring our best work, and our best teams, to our clients.'

Tackling the complexities

Such efforts are not without challenge though. Patrick Voss, co-founder of Radius, an LGBT and straight-ally networking organisation, points to several issues that organisations might face in promoting LGBT rights. 'If you're publicly putting money behind an LGBT, women's or ethnic minority group, what's the impact on those not in those communities? How does it impact on their morale? And how do you measure the value of the investment in that community? These are interesting questions that a lot of firms haven't got to - although a few have,' he says.

Appearing to promote the interests of any one group over another could create internal hostility, exacerbating the kind of discrimination that such groups were precisely designed to eradicate. Feeke says, however, that of the few times he has encountered people objecting to LGBT initiatives, their concerns have been addressed with good training and/or explanations of the benefits. But he also adds that 'people are smart enough to know that if they vocally oppose it, then they'll get themselves in trouble'.

That may be true. But policies that effectively block opposition don't prevent it from being there. Silent resistance or cynicism may come from a relatively small minority but can still have a deeply pernicious impact on the workplace, made worse because it's difficult to tackle something that's occurring underground.

Feeke agrees there might be an element of this in some workplaces, but thinks most businesses avoid problems because they now have such robust policies, practices, and training in place. 'In a less aggressive form, this is where straight, able-bodied white males have suggested they need their own support group,' he says. 'That's a kind of reaction - a way of rebelling.' His advice to companies isn't to clamp down on such requests, but to ask for a good enough business case for having such a network, in which case it could of course be supported. 'But as far as I know, nothing like this has ever been established,' he says.

It also seems that many organisations are tackling this issue by ensuring that their LGBT groups are part of a much broader diversity drive. So LGBT networks rarely operate in isolation - they sit alongside many other groups including women, ethnic minority or faith groups. This also reflects the fact that many people might fall into two or three groups anyway. 'Accenture encourages the belief that issues associated with religion, disability, gender and sexual orientation are not isolated, but that one or several can impact any one colleague,' says Thomas.

Collaboration between these groups and other employees is then actively encouraged. So at Accenture, the recent LGBT Adoption and Fostering Event was jointly hosted by its Accent on Family and Accent on Women groups. In addition, the company launched its LGBT Allies programme in 2011, and now has over 1,200 global allies who have officially pledged to support their LGBT colleagues in the work place.

'Straight people can have a transformative effect in supporting the minority, and accelerating change' adds Feeke. 'Like getting racism out of football, the most powerful people can be the white players.'

Grounds for conflict?

Firm-wide collaboration may resolve the sense that any one group is getting 'preferential treatment', but it may not resolve issues where establishing such groups actually brings employee beliefs into conflict. A potential example of this is with faith networks, which have also seen a rise in popularity among firms aiming for inclusivity. Simmons & Simmons, for instance, is fairly typical in having Muslim, Christian and Jewish networks that sit alongside its LGBT and women groups.

While the majority of members of such religious groups will be as supportive of LGBT rights as anyone else in the employee population, there may be a minority who oppose homosexuality on religious grounds. Given that religious rights were also enshrined in the 2003 anti-discrimination legislation, it's a potential minefield for employers. Feeke says that, in reality, they have encountered very little confrontation between groups. But Stonewall obviously felt it was an issue of sufficient concern to publish the guidance Religion and Sexual Orientation: How to manage relations in the workplace.

Included are several cross-sector case studies in which religious beliefs have come into conflict with LGBT initiatives - including that of a private sector service provider whose Christian network objected to the company investing in an LGBT network. The company has worked hard to bring the groups together to better understand each other, the importance of network groups and why the company is supporting both. But it remains an example of the kind of tensions that can arise in trying to deliver equality for all.

The resource problem

Underlying all of this too is the resource question. Where companies increasingly feel the need to engage everyone, whether in specific groups or as allies to those groups, then more resources are required to manage such groups. 'Beyond FTSE100 firms, most don't have a diversity manager so in those businesses the HR managers are trying to manage everything - payroll, recruitment, retention, L&D, on and off-boarding, as well as diversity and inclusivity,' says Voss. 'So there's going to be an inevitable watering down of diversity efforts in the organisation.' Nor is this helped, he adds, by the fact that it can be difficult to make a business case for diversity efforts, when the specific benefits are difficult to measure, and when everyone can have a very different definition of what diversity and inclusivity means anyway.

Perhaps this is why businesses like Radius will become more important in future. As an external LGBT networking company, it can bring together organisations and individual business employees and leaders from all sizes of company in a way that promotes diversity in the workplace, but without draining corporate resources.

A further possible advantage of Radius is that while it's an LGBT and straight-allies network, the focus of its events rarely covers specific diversity or equality issues. Instead speakers and panel discussions cover a range of topics including corporate communication, the role of IT in business, and leadership decision-making. The objective is to attract people who are chiefly interested in their careers and business, but who happen to also come from a very diverse range of backgrounds, bringing a broad range of perspectives to better promote business innovation and creativity. It's a potentially powerful kind of diversity because of its ability to be so implicit as to be both obvious and invisible at the same time.

In time, more firms may follow this kind of example. While specific support groups have no doubt played a vital role in these early years of delivering workplace equality, more might now move away from specific and perhaps limiting labels to push through much broader diversity initiatives that unite everyone behind common goals but in a context of workplace inclusivity.

Whether this happens or not, what is clear is that in the fast-paced field of LGBT rights and workplace diversity, nothing is likely to stand still for very long.