Workplace Guides: Straight Allies

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Why Be a Straight Ally?

Good employers have made significant gains in making their workplaces gay-friendly. However many employers still fail to create a workplace culture where all staff, regardless of their sexual orientation, can perform to the best of their abilities. Research shows however that in almost every organisation the vast majority of employees want their workplaces to be gay-friendly and free of homophobia. YouGov polling of over 2,000 heterosexuals across Britain,  commissioned by Stonewall, found that nine in ten support legal protections from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the workplace and three in four believe that anti-gay prejudice should be tackled. These straight people therefore play a crucial role in making the workplace more inclusive.

This chapter covers:

Being gay in the workplace

Many lesbian, gay and bisexual people still have negative experiences because of their sexual orientation and feel unable to be out at work. Stonewall research shows that in 2011 two in five gay people still do not feel able to be out to their managers, and three in four do not feel able to be out with clients or suppliers (Workplace Equality Index, 2011). Research has also shown that this often has an impact on their performance at work (Peak Performance, 2008).

Every lesbian, gay or bisexual person has to make a conscious decision about whether they will be open about their sexual orientation at work. However, it's not simply a case of coming out once. Gay people have to decide to come out every time they meet new colleagues, clients, suppliers or stakeholders. In some instances gay people who have come out at work have been ostracised or harassed by their colleagues. Bullying and harassment of lesbian, gay and bisexual colleagues is still common, with one in seven heterosexuals in the national workforce saying they've witnessed homophobic bullying of colleagues at work (Living Together, 2007).

Lesbian, gay and bisexual people who do not feel able to be out at work often expend significant amounts of energy on avoiding being outed, energy that could be spent on performing more effectively in their job. Many feel they need to avoid forming close relationships with colleagues, avoiding anything that may reveal aspects of their personal life at work and telling lies about their life simply to avoid being outed.

This can have an obvious effect on performance. They feel less confident, less motivated, unable to put everything into their job and unable to use their personal experiences to develop creative solutions at work. Not being able to engage with others honestly about who they are has an effect on their relationships with colleagues, managers, clients and stakeholders. They can often be seen as untrustworthy, unfriendly or an unwilling 'team player'.

The decision to come out is made easier however if gay people believe their managers, colleagues and clients will support them. This can be clearly demonstrated by colleagues making a visible effort to make the workplace more gay-friendly.
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Why straight allies?

Everyone in an organisation has a role to play to make their workplaces more gay-friendly. However, it's clear that heterosexual people play a crucial role, particularly if they hold positions of leadership.

"Mathematically, most leaders of most organisations are likely to be heterosexual - so it's absolutely essential that heterosexual people have a good understanding of why this is an important issue." Alex Marshall, Chief Constable, Hampshire Constabulary

"Acceptance is only possible if it's articulated by those who aren't gay. It's absolutely fundamental that the straight community are those who articulate this message. The acceptance in the Ministry of Defence that it was right that our people should be allowed to march at London Pride in uniform was driven from the top by people who were straight, not gay." Vice Admiral Charles Montgomery CBE ADC, Second Sea Lord, Royal Navy

Interventions made by heterosexual people can also have a greater impact. Straight allies agree that if they raise the issue then the charge of self-interest cannot be levelled and this makes their colleagues more receptive to the message.

"When lesbian or gay colleagues get up and talk about LGBT issues, people hearing those issues may say 'well you would say that, wouldn't you because you're a member of the gay community.' When straight allies say the same thing, it has a different impact." Chris Murray, Member of the National Grid Leadership Team and CEO, Xoserve Ltd.

"It's one thing someone saying 'its important because it affects me directly' but it's different when someone says 'I can see how this is affecting someone else and it's something that we all need to sort out.' It can make the message stronger." Louise Bailey, Permitting Officer, Environment Agency

"It gives it greater credence by the fact that it's not because of a vested interest. If straight people can add their voice I do think it's capable of making people realise that it has very strong merits." Chris Hamilton, Chairman, Oldham Rugby League Football Club

Their gay colleagues agree.

"Straight allies, particularly at senior levels, are fundamental to making gay equality work because if you're seen to be the gay member of staff who's running around doing it on your own then people think 'all the work you're doing is self-serving, you're only helping yourself, you're helping a small group.' So I think there's a huge role for straight allies because they lend credibility, they help unlock resources, they get buy-in internally and they impress people externally. If you don't have the support of straight allies then people will always ask 'why are you doing this? Isn't this favouritism? Why are you just catering to a certain group?' " Daniel Winterfeldt, Head of International Capital Markets, CMS Cameron McKenna LLP

Straight allies agree that the burden of responsibility shouldn't rest solely on gay colleagues' shoulders.

"The biggest danger when you're looking for leadership is to find your most senior, open gay person and say 'because you're openly gay, and you're senior, you're now going to be the champion of LGB issues.' Why should that person be the champion of LGB issues just because they're openly gay? That's a real imposition." Martin Hall, Vice-Chancellor, Salford University

"Our most senior out gay member of staff said 'I don't want to be the person who always has to champion sexual orientation issues - I want to focus on the job I do'." Lucy Malarkey, Head of Neighbourhoods, Gentoo Sunderland

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Everyone can do it

Championing workplace equality for gay people doesn't require special skills or attributes. Straight allies agree that the skills they use to advocate gay equality are the same skills they use every day in their jobs.

"I don't think you need any special skills above and beyond what you already need to be a good leader - it's just part of being a good people developer." Gareth Hall, Senior Manager, Accenture

"I don't think I've got special skills. But the fact that you try is received well, and as long as you do something with a good heart nobody's going to respond negatively. You've just got to want to make a difference and be willing to try." Nicholas Crapp, Managing Director, Goldman Sachs

Many feel it is important to always remember why they are straight allies - for most it is because of a belief that everyone should treat others how they would wish to be treated themselves. This strong foundation gives them confidence.

"I believe that everybody should be treated how you want to be treated yourself, it doesn't matter whether you're lesbian, gay or bisexual." Louise Goldsmith, Leader, West Sussex County Council

"People are terrified of saying the wrong thing and they therefore probably tread too gently around issues they should be more robust about. This is a people issue, it's about how you treat people and I think you need to be confident that if you treat someone as a human being they'll respond to you as a human being." Mike Eland, Director General, HM Revenue and Customs

"The explicit reason why I champion lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans issues at Salford is precisely because I'm straight. And that's a very important message, because if a heterosexual person says 'I'm leading on this issue because I believe it affects everybody' then that has a real impact." Martin Hall, Vice-Chancellor, Salford University

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What can organisations do?

Some organisations have developed formal straight ally programmes to encourage and support more straight people to become allies. Some do this by having a 'friends', 'allies' or supporters network to allow straight allies to support the work of the LGB staff network. Others have introduced reverse mentoring schemes to allow managers to get to know gay colleagues and learn about their experiences in the workplace. One example is the MD Ally programme at Goldman Sachs. The programme allows managing directors within the firm to engage with their gay colleagues.

"The MD Ally programme is about getting the broadest, most representative group of senior people involved in LGBT issues, acting as informed advocates, sitting in senior positions in all the divisions. The leveraging effect of that is significant, because you've got a lot of people talking about the issues, using the words and talking to other colleagues. And people look upwards to see what their managers are doing. They see what they are saying. They see that they are proud to be associated with the programme. They see what actions they are taking." Glenn Earle, Chief Operating Officer of European Businesses, Goldman Sachs

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