Skip to Main Content

Improving LGBTQ+ Inclusion: Key Takeaways from a Conversation with Stonewall Chair Sheldon Mills

February 2022

Can the LGBTQ+ community bring their full selves to work? What progress still needs to be made? We sat down with Sheldon Mills, chair of Stonewall, the UK’s leading LGBTQ+ charity, to discuss these issues and more. Here are some key takeaways from our conversation.

It’s different for different communities and different geographies. In some Western countries, you are able to marry or have a civil partnership. You are able to have access when partners split up, or have divorce rights, or things we take for granted. If your partner sadly passes away, you are able to have access to their estate. These are things which heterosexual couples take for granted, but which LGBT people couldn't take for granted just a few years ago.

However, in certain countries you can still be subject to the death penalty potentially. It's not enforced in most countries, but certainly that risk is there. Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, violence on the streets, in the workplace and elsewhere is a day-to-day risk for many LGBTQ+ people.

Stonewall’s aim is to enable LGBTQ+ people to be themselves wherever they are, whether that's in the workplace, in sports, in healthcare, and so on. Just because you might have the right to marry or not to be discriminated against when accessing healthcare or commercial services, doesn't mean that the society around you is completely welcoming, or that you can just breeze through like everybody else. We’re still continually ensuring that society keeps up with the changes in the law and that people's day-to-day experience is one free of prejudice, free of discrimination, and where people feel comfortable in their own skin, in their sexuality, or with their gender identity.

One starting point is to look at what the internationally agreed norm is in terms of protection of different minorities. Stonewall does quite a lot of work with the UN to ensure that as many countries as possible sign up for commitments that protect LGBTQ+ people. You can certainly find ways to hold countries to account over their international commitments.

Below that, you have to think about these things in terms of both how you respect local laws and how you protect and promote the ability of your staff to be themselves in your workplace (so that it is a safe space) and outside it, using whatever power that you have as a company.

Much depends on the jurisdiction. In some countries you can raise a banner which says, “LGBT rights are extremely important” and put your local staff in front of it. That can aid progress. In others that can be counterproductive — it can harden views and potentially put your staff in danger. It requires very careful judgment and thought depending on the situation in each country.

What's important is that you're giving the right level of support to your staff so that they can go about their business safely. We need to live in the world as it is and try and support people as best as we can.

Workplace culture is the topic of the moment. There is definitely a growing expectation from staff that they are able to be comfortable bringing more of themselves to work. The question is, what does that mean in practice? You have to feel safe in order to trust people with information. You need the right structures in place so that you can create a psychologically safe culture. Some of the best ways I've seen of doing that have been network groups (often known as employee resource groups). Network groups get support from leadership and allow for safe spaces so that people can go a little bit further in bringing their whole selves to work, but within a workplace context.

What's the benefit to bringing your whole self to work? What's the benefit of inclusion? Some CEOs believe it helps them attract and retain good talent, and ultimately they believe it impacts the bottom line. They are moving to a position where they believe that inclusivity is the best way to build motivation in the workplaces.

In terms of hiring, you could argue that we've done a little bit too well on the LGBTQ+ side. We’ve managed to succeed reasonably quickly and to effectively get to a position where there are senior LGBTQ+ leaders in many corporations. As a result, some feel that having targets for LGBTQ+ characteristics might not be necessary.

The other aspect of pink washing is around Pride. When you speak to people at a Pride event where corporations are represented, they’re not really talking about their brand. They are talking about their own individual experience. What that manages to do is bring a Black activist next to a white police officer in a different combination and have some sort of conversation.

The only way we are going to heal divisions is if we are able to reach across to each other and have conversations. Pride can be a really beautiful place for healing, a moment to bring down the tension, but I respect people who do not march in it, for example, due to racism.

For diversity and inclusion to be effective in the workplace there need to be safe enough spaces so that people feel free to say, “Well, my language is not right. My intent is good. This is what I want to understand or discuss.” Sometimes it’s about asking open questions that allow for people to explain to you what they feel about something. That way you help them to educate themselves about how they can change their behaviour.

Sometimes you need to let people fail with their language or with their approach and then come out the other end. This requires quite a lot of trust, but you can do that in workplaces. You can do that within management teams. You can do that with client relationships. It’s a bit more work, but that's how you get it done.

We shouldn't lose the allies. Allies are always the reason that rights are expanded and then rights are maintained. Allies should not be lost just because they might have said the wrong thing now and then. That’s not going to get society very far.

What does your organisation look like? Who are in leadership positions? What’s their background? What’s the colour of their skin? You have to look internally first. It’s not easy, but you've got to do it. There’s a moment now with ESG where clients, even if they don't ask for it, know that they should be doing better on DE&I. There has never been a better time than now for advisory firms to lean in to those client conversations.

With DE&I, you need to do a little bit more work to find diverse talent, grow and nurture it, rather than simply look for it in the usual places. There is work to be done here. Organisations need a strategy for how to reach into diverse communities and how to get into those talent pools.

You clearly can’t deal with every single intersectionality issue that comes to the fore, as there are so many permutations. What you can do is have an open mind about the existence of those intersections and how you can best address them.

Approach these issues by focusing on the main characteristics that might form potential discrimination or harm to individuals and deal with them to the best of your ability as efficiently as possible, which means that you've got to deal with quite a lot of things.

Check in with people. By that I don’t mean saying, “Oh, I noticed you're the only Black person in this team. Are you okay about that?” That's not the way to do it. Checking in can be, “How are you doing with your assignments? Are you getting the right assignments? How's your career progressing? How are you making your way?”

Often people from marginalized communities don’t have the same sponsorship networks, don’t have the same opportunities, or don’t have the same background when they get into an organisation that enables them to push through. White cisgender gay men have come into law firms and, because of their fear about coming out, all of that education and all of that networking has just disappeared for them because they're too afraid to work with it.

We have to find ways to recognize that it’s okay to communicate about difficult things. It’s okay. You can find ways to check in with people. Don’t assume that just because somebody has got a little way to the top that they aren't still dealing with the effects of being in a minority community.