Supporting GLBT employees in the work environment

In one of the GLBT network forum in Singapore which I attended, a HR consultant consulting on diversity program ask the audiences to do the following: “Describe to the person sitting next to you what you did this weekend. However, you must avoid any references to the gender of the person or persons you were with”.  Note, this is an audience of a mix of senior and middle managers, HR personals and of course GLBT persons.

After about 10 minutes, the consultant asked everyone for the feedback. Many if not all of the participant felt that it took them a lot of energy as they describe their situation. They had to think a longer time how to phrase their sentences to avoid mention the gender of the person.  With this exercise of just 10 minutes, everyone in the room realised how difficult it must been for closeted GLBT employees to relate to the colleagues during casual conversations or even with their superiors, when all too common for the non-GLBT folks to talk readily about their spouses, children, family and boyfriends or girlfriends.

Imagine how much more energy is expended or wasted for a closeted GLBT person in the office on a daily basis, trying to be social with their colleague, talking about their fantastic weekend with a genderless person or worst still with their fake opposite sex friend. Indeed, employees who are not out in the office tend to be less productive or less able to form strong social bonds within a team. Those who socialise by lying (as in having fake girlfriends or boyfriends) are probably worst of, because habitual lying can make a person less reliable and expend even more energy to hide the truth. What makes I worst is that people are smarter nowadays, they can easily put things together. Lying may actually give the perception of a lack of integrity and invite non-stop gossips and judgement in the office.

This is just one of reasons why international banks in Asian countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan have in the past few years, started and supported diversity program with a GLBT agenda. In such a competitive banking industry, they need their employees to be at their best and 100% productive all the time and thus aims to create an environment that allows the GLBT employee to not feel discriminated and to be themselves and to relate honestly in the office environment.

Other reasons includes but not exhaustive:

1) GLBT clients: wealthy GLBT clients are now asking banks about their diversity programs and what they are doing to support their GLBT employees before parking their money with them. For international banks, it is a competitive advantage to be listed as top GLBT friendly banks as this is more likely to attracted the same client based.

2) Attracting talents: For a competitive industry, talents are talents, regarding of sexual orientation. Many top universities have strong GLBT presence and support and the banks to go after these top graduates, who may be out GLBT persons, with a vengeance. And the graduate themselves are asking how those banks can support them in the office and career, even non-GLBT ones as part of their assessment of the firm.

3) Employee mobility: As countries in West have more liberal policies and equality towards GLBT persons over the years, the same people have risen up the ranks working in those offices over the years. One of the means for such companies to stay competitive is to reallocate the right persons to the right places when required. Without a strong diversity program in places like Singapore or Hong Kong, those employees will be hesitant to move, especially if they have partners, are married and/or have children because it would disadvantage them socially to o so.

Someone noted that all these sounds too business-like; why can’ banks just have programs out of altruistic reasons? I think we need to understand the responsibility of a public-traded entities like banks is first and foremost the bottom line. Like it or not, the bottom line drives stock prices (unless we have an alternative economical and business model) and public perception.

Secondly, to support such a program requires budget, planning, time and constant communications. All these are finite and have to compete with other programs like women’s issues, parent’s support, sports, environment and charities. Everyone is asking for money to fund those activities and every of those activities need senior executives time and also that of the employees. This is why every program is supported by a business case and requires sponsorship from a top executive. The stronger the business case, the more likely attention is given as well as

Although such programs may begin life as a business objective, as the programs getting integrated into the values of the firm, they can become altruistic. But you will need budget to run those programs.

I am glad to say that by the end of this year, most of the top international banks located in Singapore will have a GLBT program in the office to deal with issues of career progression, discrimination and awareness. Furthermore, most will have their HR benefits policies amendment to be gender neutral. Previously, for example, medical benefits for domestic partners or spouse refers only to the opposite sex partner. This is really due to what the insurance companies are willing to support. It has been hard fought, but the big banks have managed to arm twist some of these insurers to allow their policies to include same-sex domestic partner or spouse. Of course, the policies may be there, but employees still need to come out, at least, to their HR person, in order to claim those benefits. There are, of course, criteria of proof (each firm may be different) required, also because this is required for insurance claims. This is only the first steps, there are still many policies tweaks required over time and even more awareness.

GLBT equality have come a long way in Singapore but many of these movements as been individuals or unofficial groups of people coming together. Now we see push from a business point of view, such as Google and Barclays support of the Pink Dot event. Successfully achieving GLBT equality cannot only be done by the GLBT persons themselves, it requires support from non-GLBT allies and businesses like banks to move it even further; and I will dare that it can only be achieved with them coming forward and partnering together in the movements for GLBT equality to be convincing and successful.

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