Interview: How to achieve workplace equality

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Earlier this month gay equality organisation Stonewall published its 2008 Workplace Equality Index, showcasing Britain’s top 100 employers for gay people.

The top 100 were ranked according to criteria ranging from implementation of effective equality policies to practical demonstration of good practice in recruitment, how they engage with lesbian and gay staff, customers and service users.

The 240 employers who entered the 2008 Index were required to obtain a minimum score of 71 per cent to be placed in the top 100, up from 40 per cent in 2005.

At a glittering ceremony hosted by Transport for London, three of those employers were singled out for special recognition.

Top employer for 2008 is Nacro, the national crime reduction charity.

HM Prison Service won an award for Employee Network Group of the Year.

Law firm Pinsent Masons was named Most Improved Employer. spoke to them about how they achieved excellence in workplace equality:

Nacro chief executive Paul Cavadino. Congratulations, you must be really pleased that you won.

Paul Cavadino: We’re delighted that we’ve been rated number one employee and particularly pleased that a charity like Nacro is in the number one slot.

It shows that it’s not just about resources, a charity with very limited and spare financial resources can achieve a quality of support that is equal to the largest, best resourced employers in the country. What have you done over the last year?

Paul Cavadino: It’s not just over the last year, it’s a cumulative effort over the last five years and during that time one key issue is sending out constant messages.

We’ve repeatedly emphasised to our staff our policies on gay equality and our expectations of staff.

We monitored closely the sexual orientation of our staff and of the people that use our service.

We’ve funded and supported the establishment of our gay and lesbian staff network and they have worked very closely with management to promote gay equality. What are the practical benefits for you as an employer?

Paul Cavadino: The biggest single benefit is that if gay staff can be themselves without encountering prejudice and discrimination, they work better and are more likely to stay with the organisation.

I know many gay people in other work places who feel like they can’t be out at work because they fear homophobic reaction.

So they feel like they can’t talk about their partners with the same freedom that their straight colleagues can.

That they can’t talk about what they did at the weekend and who with, with the same freedom.

They feel like they’ve got to be constantly circumspect in ordinary social conversation.

And that has a damaging effect on people day after day, week after week of their working lives.

That’s why I’ve been determined Nacro will be an environment where gay staff and service users can be themselves without fearing prejudice and discrimination.

It has business benefits, but the strongest argument is that promoting this policy across the organisation is that it’s the right thing to do, it creates a healthier, more decent atmosphere.

It’s estimated generally that in most work places, fewer than half of gay staff are fully out to their colleagues at work.

In Nacro we known from our confidential monitoring that now over 90% of our gay male staff and around 80% of our gay female staff are fully out.

That has had an effect on gay service users. The fact that we’ve got a clear strong gay equality policy and the fact that gay service users can see openly gay staff all around the organisation at all levels of management as well as in the work force generally encourages gay service users to declare their sexuality to staff and declare their needs in terms of gay specific support.

Interview: How to achieve workplace equality

(L to R: John Nicholson, HM Prison Service; Ben Summerskill, Stonewall; Paul Cavadino, Nacro; Jonathan Bond, Pinsent Masons.)

John Nicholson, GALIPS, HM Prison Service LGBT employee network. You have staff all across the country in lots of different prisons, how does GALIPS actually work, do you ever get to get together?

John Nicholson: We have a central office based in London where the full time elected national chair and deputy are based with some support staff and it’s organised on a regional basis, like the prison service itself.

We have elected reps in each region and representatives in each establishment, each prison.

We’re talking about probably in the region of 150 establishments in England and Wales. I was quite interested to read about this two-tier system, tell us a little about how that works.

John Nicholson: Well there are different levels of membership so if you identify as LGB or T that gives you full membership but we have something called associate membership which is anybody who wants to associate themselves with the aims or promoting equality and promoting non-discrimination.

We encourage area managers, governors and senior managers to be seen as part of this to indicate that they’re part of our commitment to non-discrimination. It’s an important feature of the network. Do you think it’s particularly hard to be out in the prison service as opposed to say the police or any of the other services.

John Nicholson: No – it’s actually like any other organisation. It’s probably more to do with geography because we have prisons in very remote rural areas where I think anyone who lives and works there would find it difficult.

We have prisons in the middle of London, on the outskirts of Brighton. It’s not so difficult there. I think it’s more to do with location. There is I think often the perception that it’s probably quite easy to be female and gay in the prison service.

So it’s a mixed bag. And you monitor your staff as well. How many of your staff are out?

John Nicholson: It’s something we’ve done relatively recently and we’re building up the profile so in terms of stats it’s still at a very low level, we’re talking about under five per cent.

We think that it’s a question of, over a period of time, building up people’s confidence.

We’re moving to a new staff recording system which will allow people to go in and self-record their data and we think that’s when we’ll do a big major exercise across a whole range of data including religion and belief and sexual orientation.

I don’t think there is an accurate picture at the moment. But overall you’re pleased with progress.

John Nicholson: Oh absolutely. I am yes, even in 12 months I think I can see progress. If I talk to my colleagues, a huge amount of progress compared to five or ten years ago.

Jonathan Bond, Human Resources Director at Pinsent Masons. You were named the most improved employer. What sort of work have you been doing?

Jonathan Bond: The organisation thought about what sort of organisation it was, what it wanted to achieve. We set some values. One of those values was respect and cooperation.

For us that means being respectful and inclusive of everyone in the organisation, so diversity was an obvious area to cover. Once we decided that that was the case we examined and identified the different diversity streams.

I organised a diversity group to cover LGB, to cover ethnic minorities, to cover women’s issues.

I asked if anyone was interested and the answer was yes, lots of people were. So straight away 40 people came back and said ‘yes please I’d like to be in that group.’

So there were a lot of people who were very passionate about this and very happy to give their time and their attention, their energy.

One of the specific things we did on LGB diversity was we set up an LGB group which did three things and is still doing them.

Firstly it acts as a sounding board for people in the organisation, a confidential sounding board so people who are gay and want a confidential conversation with somebody about ‘should I come out at work, should I not, what approach would you take?’ can do so.

Secondly that group advise on policy – it’s very useful to have an LGB view on that.

And thirdly, they have a number of meetings and social events for LGB and also straight people to get involved and we have also had events with clients, we’ve set up a group for gay professionals in our Leeds office, a networking group.

We’ve also had a staff survey. I think we’re one of the first law firms to say to people please give us your diversity statistics so can you please tell us if you’re LGB.

And we were pleasantly surprised that 85 per cent of people did tell us their orientation and we found that we’ve got a healthy proportion of people who are LGB in the organisation.

We have been working with suppliers, we’ve been working with clients and we’ve found that we’ve been pushing an open door. People are very happy to talk about this sort of thing, happy to engage. How useful were Stonewall, did they give you helpful practical advice?

Jonathan Bond: Their workplace equality index itself is very useful because it gives you a whole set of issues and goals.

We met with Stonewall a year ago and they talked us through how we’d got on in last year’s index and they talked about the things we’d measured this year.

That in a way was an action list of all the things we should look at.

The organisation was very open to these things and we found we were able to make progress with quite a lot of them. So Stonewall were very helpful in saying here’s another organisation that has done that well, talk to JP Morgan, talk to BT, so we did.

And of course quite a few of these organisations are clients or they’ve got common issues. Stonewall are very helpful in that regard. You’re the only law firm in the top 100 firms. Why do you think that is?

Jonathan Bond: I think that other law firms will certainly get there. I just think we’re slightly ahead of the pace, ahead of the game.

A lot of law firms are committed to making progress on this and I think a lot of them are going to talk to us and say ‘what have you been doing and can we do the same things.’

It’s probably true to say law firms by their nature are a little on the conservative side. So they’re willing to change, but they’re just a little bit slow to change.

They’ve been historically terrified of alienating their client base and have been very slow to realise that their client base has actually gone well ahead of them.

The captains of industry no longer want to employ those who don’t share the culture and the values of their own organisations.

Law firms now must catch up because they’re clients have left them behind. There’s no need to be afraid.