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LGBT networks: Benefitting business

LGBT networks across accountancy firms are nothing new. However, in recent years they have excelled in promoting diversity and difference to employees from all backgrounds. Now, LGBT network members and leaders tell Oliver Griffin how their groups are benefitting business.

Thirty years ago, being gay was seemingly incompatible with being in financial services. “You couldn’t be out in the 1980s,” says Peter James, ICAEW’s head of regulatory policy and the former LGBT leader of Big Four firm PwC. “You very much kept yourself to yourself.”

James, who started his career in Sheffield with Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC), paints an uninspiring image of the profession during that time, adding that working with manufacturing clients meant it was deemed professionally unacceptable to “be out” as an accountant.

“For 22 years, I had to pretend to be someone that I wasn’t,” he says. “Particularly in Sheffield, where you’re working with hard manufacturing clients, in steel and coal mines and things, it was not professionally acceptable to be gay.”

If you only ever talk to gay people about how difficult it is to be gay at work, nothing is going to change

Unsurprisingly, the effects of concealed sexuality can impact seriously on a person’s job and workplace satisfaction. According to a recent report from LGBT equality charity Stonewall, 86% of people who are out at work feel satisfied with their sense of achievement, compared to just 54% of people who are not. Similarly, only 50% of not-out LGBT employees are satisfied with their job security, with 76% of out employees feeling secure.

For Andy Woodfield, PwC partner and leader of the firm’s GLEE (gays, lesbians and everyone else) group, networks have been instrumental in making LGBT people feel more secure at work. “When we started the LGBT network it did some amazing work in harmonising our policies and making all of our benefits systems equal for everyone,” Woodfield says, explaining that by encouraging people to be themselves at work, firms can boost satisfaction among employees who may not have felt comfortable previously.

“Research shows that if you create an environment where people can come to work and be themselves, their full emotional capacity is focused on their work,” he says. “If people are trying to pretend to be something they’re not, they edit themselves; a huge amount of their emotional capacity is spent on trying to act like they fit in.

“We want that emotional capacity focused on their work because then they are more creative, they are happier, they’re healthier, they take less sick days and they produce much more interesting work.”

For Chris Nelson, an assurance associate at Big Four firm EY, support from the firm’s LGBT network – known as Unity – was one of the main draws for joining the firm in the first place. Following a placement year at EY while studying his degree, Nelson explains that his involvement with Unity encouraged him to be himself at work, and showed him that sexual orientation should not hold back someone’s career.

“My decision to come back to EY following my graduation was largely based on my experience with [Unity], and the fact that I could be completely myself at work,” Nelson says, adding that role models met through the network help newer employees to realise their full potential. “The experience of being in the network allows you to create relationships with senior members of the firm and enables employees to become aware of their potential, ultimately reaching a higher level of success through the experience of others.”

However, in both EY and PwC, LGBT networks are not exclusive organisations; rather, they are now used to encourage diversity across the wider work force and encourage wide spread participation and involvement from straight allies. Woodfield argues that networks being inclusive of all employees are infinitely more useful in furthering debate and encouraging everyone to celebrate their uniqueness at work. This, he says, is important for overall productivity of any business.

“If you only ever talk to gay people about how difficult it is to be gay at work, nothing is going to change; it’s no longer just about being gay” Woodfield says. “It needs to be about every single person being comfortable to be themselves at work […] that’s as important for a middle-aged, white, straight male as it is for a young, black lesbian.”

But what makes LGBT employees the best candidates to tackle issues of inclusion at work? Both James and Woodfield suggest that the private nature of being LGBT – compared with other strands of diversity – makes LGBT people “uniquely qualified” to tackle issues surrounding diverse areas.

“Most LGBT people in the workplace understand what it feels like to feel different,” Woodfield explains. “For me, they are uniquely qualified to talk about difference. We wanted to use that concept to educate and include everyone in the debate about valuing difference.”

You need to build a network based on your community

“[LGBT people] feel it more deeply than others, partly because it’s not evident to the outside world that they are of a diverse strand,” James agrees. “You can tell with gender, and most of the faiths; you can tell by the way people dress and their symbolism. In cases of orientation it’s rather more difficult.”

But while the Big Four firms can now use LGBT employees’ experience to further a wider range of diversity practices, that isn't to say exclusive networks – especially new ones – do not still have a role to play. For smaller and mid-tier firms, building trust within LGBT communities is still an issue that requires some work. For Michelle Carroll, a tax partner at mid-tier BDO and leader of the firm’s LGBT Blend network, being exclusive is an important starting point for any LGBT network.

“The first thing you need to do when building a network from scratch – especially for a group that is invisible – is build trust,” Carroll says. “To begin with, you need to build a network based on your community. You can’t be all things to all people on day one. You have to build trust, then you can open doors to other suggestions, such as talking about whether you have a straight allies programme or not.

“We would like to be where the Big Four are but we are a start up network, so we aren’t there just yet. While Blend is a firmly LGBT network, it isn’t a stand-alone; it’s part of the broader BDO diversity agenda.”

For Woodfield though, LGBT business networks are most crucial for their continued effect on social change. “As a big company, we have an extraordinary power to effect social change,” he says.

“We don’t have to wait for Stonewall to say something, or a minister to say something. If PwC does something, it matters to our people, to our clients, and to the communities we exist within. We deserve, and we have a responsibility, to do something with that power. Rather than just do our business, we have a responsibility to drive social change as well.” 

Oliver Griffin

Originally published in Economia, February 2015.