Lessons for workplace inclusion from the marriage equality debate

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Topics LGBTIQ+
DCA Team members November 2017 holding a rainbow flag

A year ago, Australians collectively held our breath as we waited to find out how our country voted on marriage equality.

While there is much more to do for full equality for LGBTIQ+ people – LGBTIQ+ people still face discrimination in Australia; and around the world LGBTIQ+ people are still criminalised for who they are and who they love – the impact of marriage equality has been a profound turning point for LGBTIQ+ equality.

And the way workplaces handled this ‘debate’ contains a number of lessons for leaders and organisations who want to create inclusive workplaces.

This year, Diversity Council Australia, along with RMIT, Star Observer and our sponsors Deloitte and QBE surveyed over 1600 LGBTIQ+ Australians about why they choose to come out at work, and their experiences of inclusion at work.

What we found was that LGBTIQ+ inclusive cultures were good for business and for the people who work in them.

Our survey of over 1600 LGBTIQ+ workers revealed that employees in organisations that are highly LGBTIQ+-inclusive are at least twice as likely as employees in non-inclusive cultures to work effectively, innovate, and provide excellent customer/service.  They are also seven times more likely than employees in non-inclusive cultures to recommend their organisation as a good place to work (56% versus 8%).

We didn’t specifically ask our respondents about marriage equality, but something that came up again and again was the impact that the public ‘debate’ during the Australian Marriage Laws Postal Survey had on them in the workplace.

Here are five lessons we learnt:   

1. Work can be a safe-space to be out

The Australian Marriage Laws Postal Survey was a tough time for LGBTIQ+ people and our families. And throughout it all, LGBTIQ+ people kept on getting up and going to work, while the community debated our rights and the validity of our relationships.

For some people, work actually became a safe-space, when they weren’t able to be open about their sexuality at home:

"A lot of intersectional groups came-out during the marriage equality debate, but out at work, while still being closeted at home. This person I worked with who was from a Muslim Lebanese cultural background would come in to work every day with a smile on her face but once 3pm hit, she would have to psych herself up to go home and hide herself all over again. The value of being out at work for her was a lot more impactful."

2. Being visible on issues of importance like marriage equality is important

Some respondents told us this that their organisation made a business decision not to publically support marriage equality based on how clients might react:

"During the plebiscite, my organisation had a big client – we are talking about a multi-million-dollar client – who has said, ‘If you publicly support marriage equality you will lose our business."

For LGBTIQ+ employees in organisations that did not take a public stand, feelings of invisibility and unimportance were common.  

"During the Marriage Equality Debate and Survey - not one of my co-workers asked me about it - they avoided the subject. No one acknowledged it happened on the day it passed."

Feeling invisible or unimportant was linked to lower job satisfaction and engagement. LGBTIQ+ employees who are out to everyone at work are significantly more likely to work effectively, innovate, and provide excellent customer/service than LGBTIQ+ employees who feel they need to conceal their LGBTQ+ identity or intersex variation.

3. Leaders taking a stand matters

Leaders taking a public stand on marriage equality had a really important and profound impact for employees during the postal survey in 2017:

“If my group CEO will back me on marriage equality, will stand beside me and fight for me, I know don’t need to filter myself at work.”

Senior leaders taking a public stance on marriage equality sent cues to LGBTIQ+ employees that they were safe and welcome in a workplace, which our research showed had a strong link to improved performance.  In fact, leadership was the organisational factor second most strongly correlated with LGBTIQ+ people being out at work (after having an LGBTIQ+ inclusive culture). 

4. But leadership must genuine

Taking a public stand on marriage equality was important. But participants revealed that it was not enough to just have leaders who made a token gesture, without really backing LGBTIQ+ people.

"My organisation recently made the decision to not take a stance on the same-sex marriage plebiscite on the grounds that it didn't want to openly take a position.  The same week the plebiscite voting closed, we published on our LinkedIn page that 4 of our overseas execs had been nominated for their work with the LGBT community.  Dumping the hypocrisy would be a great start."

Leaders need to show genuine and bold commitment to LGBTIQ+ issues, for example making a commitment to call out homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and interphobia, even if it came from potential clients or customers. For example, one large company had a script ready to deal with any potential backlash over the company’s support for marriage equality:

"If a customer calls with backlash [against my organisation’s support for marriage equality], we had a script that asked them if they would like to close their account."

5. We are in this together

Finally, during the marriage equality debate, LGBTIQ+ people needed allies.

One of the biggest burdens that falls on the LGBT minority is the need to educate, or shut up and put up. It would be a relief if people from the majority could help do this for us.

Workplaces should develop active and equal partnerships between LGBTIQ+ and non-LGBTIQ+ allies that ensure a balance between ‘nothing about us without us’ and always relies on LGBTIQ+ people to do the work on inclusion. Senior leaders who were allies and who could speak out in support of LGBTIQ+ people and issues that affect them made a massive difference to people during the postal survey last year. 

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For more information about LGBTIQ+ inclusion, refer to Out at Work: From Prejudice to Pride.

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