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Column: Shouldn’t we be over gay people in the workplace?

Many workers still feel they have to hide their sexual orientation, writes Davin Roche. Changing this would be good for business.

Davin Roche

THE LAST WEEK was a particularly eventful one for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

On Saturday almost 30,000 people paraded in the annual pride parade in Dublin, second only to the St Patrick’s Day procession as the largest parade in the capital. Then on Sunday the weekend Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore declared “The right of gay couples to marry is, quite simply, the civil rights issue of this generation, and, in my opinion, its time has come.”

The Tánaiste’s view was endorsed by the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter. Minister Shatter himself had just announced that he was preparing legislation to protect same-sex headed families in his address to the European Gay Police Association at their annual conference in Dublin Castle. While we in GLEN, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network launched excellenceindiversity.ie, an online resource for employers to help them ensure that their workplaces are inclusive of their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees.

In the midst of all this activity, why do we focus on LGBT equality at work? Well, the workplace is a critically important part of life for most people. For most of us it is our principal form of economic security. It gives us choice on how to live our lives. It allows us make a contribution to our communities. It is also critical to the functioning of the economy.

‘Most LGBT employees conceal their sexual orientation at work’

Many workplaces are fully inclusive of LGBT employees. LGBT colleagues disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity without any fear of bias or discrimination from their colleagues or customers. They can refer to their same-sex partners in casual conversation in the same way their straight colleagues mention their spouses or partners. Their civil partnerships are celebrated in the workplace in the same way as their colleagues’ weddings. The company’s pension provisions for same sex partners are well known and communicated to all staff. LGBT colleagues are ‘out’ at all levels in the organisation.

However there are still many workplaces where LGBT employees do not feel it is safe to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity. One quarter of LGBT people in an Irish survey experienced harassment at work at some point in the career because they were LGBT. And a majority of LGBT employees in the same survey concealed their sexual orientation or gender identity from their colleagues in general at work.

This means for example that they did not mention their partner by name, they were guarded about their personal life because they feared a negative consequence of being ‘out’ at work. At its worst this can mean not being able to refer to life partners, their illnesses or even their bereavement at work. The fear of being ‘outed’ can create huge stress for LGBT employees and can create a real sense of disconnection between LGBT employees and their colleagues or clients.

People perform best when they can be themselves. A wide range of employers, employer bodies and trade unions understand this. Employers such as Ernst and Young, University College Dublin and the ESB understand the importance of removing any barriers to their employees performing to the best of their ability at work. Conscious or unconscious bias, discrimination or harassment are bad for employee performance, recruitment, retention and reputation. They are bad for business.

‘We are working towards a society where being LGBT will be unremarkable’

Employers and trade unions who understand the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace are seeking our support in GLEN to ensure that their workplaces are fully inclusive of their LGBT employees and customers.

To help meet this need GLEN has produced a suite of supports for employers and trade unions including our Diversity Champions programme, LGB Diversity in the Workplace guide and most recently, excellenceindiversity.ie.

Returning to the Tánaiste’s comments , there has been enormous progress in Ireland over the last 20 years for lesbian and gay people. In particular equality legislation provides protection for LGB people in employment (with the exception of Section 37.1) and the powerful civil partnership legislation provides lesbian and gay couples with marriage like rights and responsibilities including equality in the workplace.

Civil partnership has had a transformative effect on the status of lesbian and gay people in Ireland. Building on the success of civil partnership, public and political Ireland is quickly evolving to support the next step of access to civil marriage and full constitutional equality for lesbian and gay people.

Building on legislative achievement, full equality for LGBT people will be realised when there is widespread acceptance of LGBT people. We are working towards a society where being LGBT will be unremarkable. In the workplace LGBT people will not experience discrimination or harassment in the workplace on the basis of who they are. It will be possible to be openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender in all workplaces, in every shop floor and in every board room.

Davin Roche is the director of workplace diversity at GLEN, The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network. For more information, visit glen.ie.

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Davin Roche

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