Rainbow shame

Rainbow shame
Recent research suggests creating a workplace where employees feel able to be "out" at work is good for business. Seems like Kiwi companies have a way to go

Satire is a serious thing, wrote Italian philosopher novelist Umberto Eco. That’s what I tell myself anyway, when I reach for the Alex cartoon in the New Zealand Herald before reading the serious stuff. In the exaggeration behind Alex is the truth of what’s going on in the world of finance, I mutter into my muesli.

So I have followed with interest the Alex cartoonists’  foray into the theme of being openly gay at work. When Nigel and his blushing groom get hitched and head off into the sunset (first class flight, of course) the conversation over that welcoming glass of bubbly goes like this:

“I’m getting a negative vibe here. People in the business world know us individually, but seeing us together I sense they’re being very judgemental. I know what everyone’s thinking.

“What, that if we’re both permitted to be on the same flight it must mean one of us is not that important...

“And if the plane crashed the bank could afford to lose both of us.”

The implication, of course, is that the embarrassment of being seen together has nothing to do with the bankers’ homosexuality, and everything to do with their business status. 

But is that really the case? How much is being 'out' at work acceptable?

A new book by John Browne, former chief executive of BP, suggests the reality for executives is not as rainbow-tinted as the Alex cartoon suggests.

Browne, now Lord Browne, was publicly outed in 2007 in a kiss-and-tell media expose by a former lover. He had spent years building BP from a local oil company to an international giant, but had kept his private life utterly secret, believing an openly gay man would never get a senior executive role.

His book, The glass closet: Why coming out is good business, argues that creating a workplace environment where staff feel they can be open about their sexuality is good for business. Staff are are more productive if they aren’t expending energy hiding half of their lives, and the gay consumer is more likely to support an openly LGBT-friendly company. 

That isn't necessarily happening. At the end of 2013 there was no openly gay CEO in the Fortune 500; and 41% of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) employees in the US (and 34% in the UK) remained in the closet when they were at work. 

Perhaps more damning was a US study where two fictitious CVs were sent in response to 1,800 job applications. Within each pair of resumes, one applicant listed experience in a gay student group; the other said they had been part of a left-wing organisation. Otherwise the CVs were similar. The study found "gay" candidates were 40% less likely to be invited to an interview than straight ones.

Browne's book comes at an interesting time for New Zealand. A newly-launched "Rainbow Tick" LGBT-friendly business accreditation scheme is in the process of signing up its first half-dozen or so companies, including grunty organisations like SkyCity, ASB, AUT University, Westpac, Coca-Cola and Simpson Grierson. 

Just as important, long- needed research on the workplace environment for LGBT employees in New Zealand is due out any day. Results from the study, which involved interviews with more than 1000 Kiwi employers and employees, were still under wraps as this column went to press. But preliminary findings suggest New Zealand has at least as far to go in the area of LGBT acceptance as its US and European counterparts.

The number of gay and lesbian staff who feel able to be out at work is no greater than overseas, says Michael Stevens, whose not-for-profit Affinity Services commissioned the research. That is around 35%-40%.

And he notes an important disconnect between how the (mostly straight) bosses see the workplace environment, compared to the reality from their LGBT employees' perspective.

"There is often a lot of goodwill and expectation from the top that the organisation has an inclusive culture. But that is often not the reality for LGBT employees on the ground," Stevens says. Although mainstream New Zealand is pretty tolerant in areas like gay marriage, and management thinks all is well, there are a number of real practical problems which stop LGBT staff feeling included.

And that's a shame. ⋅