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The Cost of the Corporate Closet

By Melissa J. Anderson

The United States has finally repealed its infamous military “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding gay men and women in uniform. Yet many LGBT individuals within America’s corporate space are still under similar DADT duress. The corporate closet drives individuals to keep mum on their personal life, which has real, tangible consequences for firms whose cultures aren’t “open.”

In today’s leading workplaces, the cost of the closet negatively impacts team relationships, employee retention and recruitment, and even client interaction.

Chris Crespo, Director of Diversity & Inclusiveness at Ernst and Young, said, “In our business, which is a business built on relationships, if you can’t be open and honest about yourself, it creates trust issues.”

Particularly in those industries where business is based on client relationships, like accounting, law, sales, etc., trust is a key ingredient for success. For example, law firm Shearman & Sterling recently released its own “It Gets Better” video, featuring some of its own gay employees. Only in a truly inclusive culture would the level of trust required to produce this kind of outreach be possible.

“We are very proud of our creative contribution to the ‘It Gets Better’ project,” said Anna Brown, Shearman & Sterling’s Director of Diversity. “Our lawyers and administrative staff members spoke candidly and from their heart, and I think that is why the video has been so very well received. The project is another example of our continued commitment, as a firm, to leadership in the LGBT community in this case as well as a broader commitment to global diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

As global competition for high performing employees increases, companies literally can’t afford to keep their LGBT employees closeted – they will leave for more progressive companies where they can be open and honest about themselves. Building an inclusive corporate culture has become a business imperative in the corporate space, and is likely to only grow in importance in the next few years. Here’s why.

Building Teams

“We talk a lot about helping people achieve their full potential,” said Crespo. “When the organization is in sync with your values, you are more empowered and you are able to make better decisions.” She continued, “Instead of worrying about what people think, or worrying about getting outed, you can apply that energy to work – it’s a total competitive advantage to be inclusive.”

Additionally, she said, creating an inclusive dialogue around LGBT issues strengthens relationships within teams. “It’s so critical that we get folks feeling included in the discussion, that they have the ability to make a difference. We want them to say, ‘here’s my suggestion on how to make it better.’”

For example, she said, the Ernst & Young’s people resource group Beyond deals with LGBT issues. With over 1700 people, the group has served as a touchstone for many of the firm’s employees. “It’s almost been a leadership and development committee – pulling in people around an issue they are passionate about, which has led to other opportunities for individuals and teams.”

Retention and Recruitment

For LGBT individuals, working somewhere they feel they can be open is a big reason to stay with the firm. She explained, “There was a Gallop poll that showed people with a best friend at work were less likely to leave. If you can’t have open and honest relationships at work, you’re not going to have that best friend.”

LGBT inclusiveness is a key issue when it comes to attracting and retaining top talent – and openness in the office benefits more than just gay men and lesbians. Crespo explained “LGBT is seen as a barometer on how progressive an organization is.”

She added “It’s a total business imperative if companies want to have younger people attracted to the organization.”

Client Retention

“Have you ever thought your client might be gay?” asked Crespo. It’s a question she often asks during training sessions, and she said it’s really been an eye opener for some people. “You don’t want to lose a client by saying something ignorant,” she added.

Crespo remembered a story regarding an employee who gave a sales pitch to a potential client, discussing the firm’s inclusiveness and his participation in the LGBT employee resource groups – and got the client because of it.

“The client said they wanted to get their inclusiveness looking like ours someday – that the salesperson just showed heartfelt pride in the organization,” she recalled.

That’s where we want to be

Challenges

“One of the biggest challenges initially is just getting people to understand why [LGBT inclusiveness] is important,” Crespo said. “At first we had to have some one-on-one conversations. We ask, ‘What would you do if it were your kid? Wouldn’t you want the same opportunities for them?’ That’s gotten people thinking deeply about biases.”

As a global firm, she continued, another challenge LGBT individuals face is mobility. Ernst & Young encourages its employees to take positions in different parts of the world, and she said, “We have to be careful on where we send some of those folks.”

For example, some countries may not recognize a gay marriage, or may offer different rights or benefits to LGBT couples. “There may be extra steps involved, like getting two visas, that other folks don’t have to go through,” she said.

At a time when high performing individuals want to work for a company with inclusive values, these companies have to go the extra mile. What may seem like a small detail can mean the world to an employee, and can seriously impact his or her desire to stay at a firm when other employment options are looming. Not only that, as Crespo explained, work toward LGBT inclusiveness signifies a firm that is attractive in other areas of diversity and corporate responsibility, as well – which goes a long way to recruit and retain values-motivated employees.

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