Diversity networks: Are they still needed? A personal journey to explore the topic…

This post explores my personal motivations for getting involved in diversity networks in the workplace, rather than simply the business case for diversity and inclusion. The post was originally published in May 2012 on the internal collaboration platform at my workplace (accessible by 90,000+ internal colleagues), and has been digitally remastered when published via this external blog in August 2015.

 

Are Employee Networks Still Needed in 2012?

“Do we still need Global Diversity Networks in the workplace?”

“We don’t have a straight white men’s network, do we?”

When learning that I’m an active committee member of a Bank’s LGBT employee network, people have quite legitimately asked me whether we still need employee networks in the workplace? After all, from a UK perspective we have laws and company policies in place to ensure non-discrimination in the workplace. We have moved on from the days whereby you could ask a senior business executive (from any company) how many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees they have working for them and expect to hear a response that they “don’t have any” – which they genuinely believed I might add. In 2012 most employees will know at least one colleague who openly identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – whether or not they choose to share this in the workplace. And in 2012 many Fortune 500 multinational organisations have Ally programmes raising awareness of the benefits and how to foster an open and inclusive workplace where colleagues identifying with a minority affinity group can bring their whole self to work. Further, many Generation Y and Millennial’s entering the workplace do not want to be given labels – so why have a diversity network that on the face of it does just that? – for example labelling a group of employees who identify with a certain sexual orientation or gender identity. And surely, if LGBT employees want to be treated equal to any other employee then they shouldn’t have a special network or group that goes against this very equality and highlights them as different? Companies don’t have a straight white men’s network, do they?

I think most of these are all valid questions to raise, and all are questions I have been asked at one point or another by people both inside my current workplace and out – including some people who self identify as LGBT. So if these are valid questions then why do we still have employee networks?

As ever, the views expressed below are all my own, and not the views of my current or previous employers. To address the above questions I want to share my own experiences. For me, diversity networks are not an opportunity to wave a banner or flag in the air shouting “look at me, I’m different but want treating the same”, but form part of my personal journey within the workplace.

 

A Personal Journey

“It was only as I started at the bank that I began to question what I could/should share about my personal life, and what the repercussions of sharing may be”

“I spent part of my time and energy holding back aspects of my personal life from colleagues”

When I started working at a large German bank in September 2008 I had only been ‘out’ to a small group of close friends for two months. Put briefly being out means “identifying yourself as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and disclosing this to other people”. Back when applying for jobs in the Autumn of 2007, finding an employer of choice that ranked highly in their efforts to tackle discrimination and create inclusive workplaces for LGBT employees was not a personal consideration for me. It was only as I started at the bank that I began to question what I could/should share about my personal life, and what the repercussions of sharing may be. In my first graduate rotation I actively hid my personal life. I was dating someone outside London for the first four months of this first job, and would avoid mentioning that this was where I went every 3rd or 4th weekend. I would skirt around water cooler topics about what I did outside work or where I socialised, was careful to use words such as ‘they’, rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ when talking about friends or my partner, and I would avoid correcting people when they assumed my other half was female. In effect I was spending part of my time, energy and focus holding back aspects of my life; time I could have put to better effect had I felt able to be more open with colleagues. Why did I even think disclosing the gender of my partner would be an issue? To many heterosexual people coming out isn’t a big deal, yet for people who identify as LGBT it can be a psychological challenge. I would often (wrongly) anticipate responses to coming out, fear negative reactions and/or loss of colleagues’ trust. Ultimately I wanted to be known for the quality of my work, rather than whom I was attracted to.

 

“dbPride provided a safe space for me to connect with other employees who identify as LGBT and to share similar journeys”

“Through dbPride my personal confidence grew, and this ultimately led me to make the conscious decision to be more open about my personal life”

It is easy to walk a floor and identify people who identify with a Women’s Network, or whom may identify with the multicultural network. Similarly it takes little deduction to find people who identify with the family network (just look around your floor now for people wearing wedding rings, with photos of loved ones on their desk, etc). It is much harder to find people who identify as LGBT. Not only is this statistically true (I believe the number of people who identify as LGBT is between 6 and 10% of the population, compared to the 52% of people in the UK who identify as female), but many of these 6-10% are not out at work (by choice or otherwise). As a new hire at a bank it was difficult to find people to talk to about experiences being out at work and strategies for ‘coming out’. Cue the bank’s LGBT employee network – dbPride . The dbPride group provided a safe space for me to connect with other employees who identify as LGBT and to share similar journeys. It enabled me to make new friends, many of whom I chose to socialise with outside of work – this was particularly important as prior to moving to London I knew few LGBT people (having come out post university). Through dbPride my personal confidence grew, and this ultimately led me to make the conscious decision to be more open about my personal life in my second graduate rotation. I made that decision two months before the end of my first rotation, and yet continued to actively hide my personal life to colleagues in my first rotation – fearful that their opinion of me would change and this may unconsciously change their opinion or reviews of me. I should add that in hindsight I had no reason to fear coming out in my first rotation, my fear was driven by fear of the unknown.

 

Thanks to the dbPride group I began my second rotation without hiding my personal life or my participation in the network. Whilst I don’t have a rainbow coloured PC background or pictures of colourful nights out on my desk (nor would I want that), I do happily tell people that I have a partner and what he does if they ask. A frequent follow up to “so are you seeing anyone special?” is “what’s she called?”. In response I casually correct the assumption or gender identity nouns, such as with, “he’s called …”. My current partner of 3+ years attends work events with me and he gets on well with colleagues. I have not had any negative responses to being out from colleagues and find the environment very open and accepting. This builds a two way trust with friends and colleagues and gives me additional confidence at work – without needing to worry people will wonder what I am holding back and why. I have also been fortunate to have strong and visible senior management support – including to attend Out & Equal workplace equality summits – providing an opportunity to share workplace diversity best practices and develop personal skills. In return I have become a local subject matter expert for diversity questions, a strong ally, and provide an open forum to challenge and further the diversity agenda – such as how people can contribute and show they support a diverse workplace.

 

“Fostering an environment where employees can be themselves irrelevant of their age, gender identity, ethnicity or sexual orientation will help companies be more productive and successful, and aid communities and client relationships outside the bank.”

My role within dbPride has evolved since joining. No longer is it just about a safe space and a place to develop a personal network, but I find myself coaching others who are on a similar journey to myself. I find it is an empowering experience to watch people grow in confidence as they become more comfortable being themselves at the office. As well as organising networking and learning opportunities inside the Bank, I have participated and coordinated in a number of educational events – with a particular passion for demystifying the antiquated stereotypes about working culture in the financial industry. I have featured in Stonewall’s Starting Out Guide and from 2012-14 have been featured panel speaker at Inside and Out graduate recruitment event. I believe fostering an environment where employees can be themselves irrelevant of their age, gender identity, ethnicity or sexual orientation will help companies be more productive and successful, and aid communities and client relationships outside the bank.

 

So are Diversity Employee Networks still relevant?

Talking to students looking at careers in banking there is still a common misconception that banking is masculine orientated and its difficult to be yourself if you are LGBT. Breaking down these stereotypes is an important part of what diversity networks do when utilised as a business resource group and in ensuring we recruit and retain the best talent. Similarly, dbPride have a lot of antidotal evidence of where the employee network and senior network allies are helping with the Bank’s external relationships. This highlights business value that can be gained from the network. Within an organisation employee networks can facilitate the sharing of individual stories, foster and highlight role models and show that being yourself is not a barrier to success. All of this is good for employee morale, which in turn drives employee loyalty and longer staff retention and ultimately adds business value. Thus their is a clear correlation that employee networks are not just good for the employees, but also good for business.

 

As can be seen from this post, my personal comfort zone with being bisexual at my organisation is such that I am now sharing this journey with yourself, externally – which is no small feat when I think of how I felt in 2008. I’m not advocating that everyone who identifies as LGBT should be out, but I believe it is a personal right to be able to be open and out if you wish to, and when you are ready. For me the diversity networks support this right. In response to questions like “why isn’t there a straight white men’s network?”, I would happily advocate such a network if there are a number of straight white males who find it difficult being straight, white and/or male, and want to share these challenges and stories to make the workplace a better place.

Posted in Diversity and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Discuss this post...