iStock_000016828841XSmallBy Cleo Thompson (London), founder of The Gender Blog

As part of this year’s celebrations of Gay Pride, we’ve decided to take a look at Sexuality in the City (of London) and ask – how are London’s big companies and financial institutions approaching the LGBT agenda and what do best practices look like in 2011? Are networks making a difference, is it any easier to be out at work than it once was and what does “success” look like if you’re building an integrated and inclusive workplace?

We started by examining the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index – Britain’s leading tool for employers to measure their efforts to tackle discrimination and create inclusive workplaces for lesbian, gay and bisexual employees. Since launching in 2005, more than 650 major employers have taken part in the Index, using Stonewall’s Index criteria as a model for good practice. Each year, Stonewall publishes a list of the Top 100 Employers – the list of those they dub “the most gay friendly employers in Britain.” 2011’s top three such employers are the Home Office, Lloyds Banking Group, and Big 4 accounting firm Ernst & Young and, when we asked around, it became clear that having a place in the Stonewall Index was regarded as essential best practice amongst the LGBT community, with one typical comment being:

“… I would … research the company’s stance and reputation on “gay equality”. I have previously checked whether a company has ever featured in Stonewall’s Equality Index and also spoken to friends who have knowledge about the company.”

After several interviews, we determined a number of best practices that the City’s top companies are engaging in to attract and retain LGBT talent. Here are just a few of the methods these firms are employing to create more inclusive workplaces.

1. Providing Networking Opportunities

Ernst & Young, who came third in the 2011 Stonewall Index, were named Network of the Year in 2010 and Star Performer Network in 2011 for their Ernst & Young Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (EYGLES) network, so we asked them for some guide points on best practice and network integration. Both EMEAI Diversity & Inclusiveness Director Fleur Bothwick and EYGLES co-chair Kelly Widelski were very clear on the need for employees to feel as if they can bring all of themselves to work, with Widelski telling us that:

“A formalised network can provide the structure and support that people may need to develop within an organisation. Networks also help to drive real change. A goal of our EYGLES network [which has been in place for 15 years] is to help provide a place where our employees can achieve their full potential; this is a driver in assisting our LGBT employees to rise through the ranks into leadership positions and in turn provides role models that educate and develop our business.”

Widelski also emphasised that EYGLES provides strong support to the firm’s wider diversity and inclusion strategy, noting that “ … we act as trusted advisors on all things LGBT for our leadership group. By doing this and constantly challenging ourselves to innovate, we are able to drive change across our business. I believe we are taking diversity and inclusiveness to a new level by using it as a value driver in how we connect to the market.”

She added that there’s a commercial edge to the network’s profile too, in that – “ … we support the development of existing relationships with our clients by sharing our best practices with them around D&I and the LGBT strand in particular; our programme “Having Different Client Conversations” allows us to drive debate and real change across the workplace environment.”

2. Setting the Tone from the Top

This year’s list of DiversityInc’s Top 10 Companies for LGBT Employees indicated that tone from the top – specifically, having a straight leader who actively champions LGBT causes – is a great best practice in the USA and we learned that the same is true in London. One staffer at a top law firm told us:

“… best practice for me is that there is senior leadership buy in. Most, if not all, companies know that they have to invest some effort into gay employees. However, I know from friends that in most cases this just extends to a group being created in silo to the rest of the firm. I’ve been pleased to see [our] Chairman and members of the Board attend LGBT events and contribute to discussions and debates on what gay equality looks like in a professional services firm.”

3. Engaging in People Development

We hear a lot about authentic leadership at the moment, as a very 21st century buzz phrase. It’s particularly apt for members of the LGBT community, who may not always feel comfortable about bringing their whole, “real” self to work or into a leadership role. Organisational consultant Jean Balfour, co-chair of pan-business networking group the Gay Women’s Network, commented that, “Organisations should [consider] mentoring, helping people access internal ‘sponsors’ and providing professional development opportunities for staff – these are key.”

4. Providing Community and Philanthropy Opportunities

All the companies surveyed for this article were very clear on the need to connect their people network activities with the wider community – and they do this by supporting key LGBT charities such as the London Gay and Lesbian Switchboard and the Terrence Higgins Trust. Ernst & Young also support Stonewall’s fund raising events and companies such as PwC and the Royal Bank of Scotland encourage staff to get involved in philanthropic activities by providing matched donations to their chosen charities and paid leave to volunteer for them.

The future – where next?

Ernst & Young’s Fleur Bothwick is clear that “… inclusive leadership is about valuing difference. It’s about recognising that our real strength lies in our ability to work together and in leveraging everyone’s unique perspectives”. Jean Balfour agrees and urges companies to help more women to achieve and succeed in senior roles, as “This then in turn might make it seem easier for lesbians to come out.”

Everyone interviewed for this article were themselves out at work, but also had friends and colleagues who were not; the reasons for this ranged from feeling that their sexual preferences were none of their employer’s business to believing that the culture of their investment banking workplace was still “stuck in the 80s and very macho.”

However, a gay male interviewee observed that, for him, best practice is now all about “normal – [my company] has made big strides in normalising your sexual orientation within the workplace.” Kelly Widelski of E&Y agrees, suggesting that indiference and a lack of interest in what goes on in the bedroom is the best measure of acceptance and inclusion.

Let’s encourage employers everywhere to move towards adopting this new definition of “normal.”