Why do we need a Coming Out Day, you might be thinking? With all of the recent coverage of the 50th anniversary of decriminalisation of gay sex in England and Wales, and Scotland being rated second only to Malta as the best place in Europe to be LGBTI, and Pride events throughout the summer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we don’t need any special days for LGBTI people. There is undoubtedly an improving climate for LGBTI people in Scotland but there’s plenty of evidence that there’s much more work to do.
Coming Out remains hugely significant for gay, lesbian and bisexual people. It’s a defining moment in each of our lives. Even though there are many more out LGB people, most of us live in a world where being straight or heterosexual is seen as the norm. And our coming out is not a once in a lifetime event, but something that happens to us sometimes daily and certainly weekly or monthly. We can also be in or out dependent upon the stage of our lives and our environment: graduates who were out at university may choose to go back into the closet when they start work for fear that being out might damage their work prospects.
What’s the problem in this? At its most simplistic, hiding one’s identity means an effort, a distracting focussing on covering up. Something as seemingly innocuous as responding to a colleague asking how your weekend went, when you have spent it with your same sex partner but you’re not out at work leads to exhausting self-censoring. This can give the impression that the LGB person is hiding something – which indeed they are! This impacts on trust.
In the workplace this impacts someone’s ability to give their best, reducing productivity and creativity because they are putting effort into covering. In schools, loneliness and isolation, increased susceptibility to bullying can mean a very negative school experience. In a LGBT Youth Scotland survey, nearly 70% of young respondees had experienced homophobic or biphobic bullying in school and over three-quarters of transgender young people had experienced homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying. Hardly an encouragement to come out.
At work, in schools or in life in general, surely people are healthier and happier when they are sustained by relationships where they can share good and bad times with people that understand and relate to them, in other words in an environment where they feel that they belong. This is easier said than done, so what do we need to do to help achieve this.
In all organisations it starts with leadership and leaders clearly stating the importance of all people, however they define themselves, being welcomed, respected and valued. It really helps for this to be paid more than lip service, how about chief executive support for a LGBT allies programme and sharing role model success at all levels with active sponsorship?
In schools, differences need to be celebrated along with fundamentals that all share. Focus on the positive works well, but an uncompromising message on bullying needs to be said, directly and clearly. The message around inclusion needs to be presented meaningfully, with practical examples making it real for young people. So, it’s good to see that LGBT Youth Scotland launched a toolkit for students and teachers on Coming Out Day about “Developing a Gender and Sexual Orientation Alliance”: just the sort of useful practical guide on inclusion that’s needed.
There’s also a key role for managers, team leaders and for colleagues too, around getting to know the people you work with. This is not about intrusion into personal lives, but about demonstrating by one’s actions that you are interested in people’s welfare, what’s important to them, what are their aspirations – this makes it much more likely that people will feel comfortable about coming out with all the benefits that this brings.
What we shouldn’t be doing is outing people, it’s something for the individual to decide when the time is right. However, we can all, particularly if we lead organisations and manage people and ensure that we provide a supportive and welcoming environment that encourages LGBT people to be themselves and gain the benefits of doing so. After all, coming out’s not just for Coming Out Day it should be for every day.
During autumn last year, it seemed as though there was a non-stop flood of sexual abuse claims, mostly from women but also by men. The film industry and theatres, which are meant to be bastions of creativity and diversity, were seen to be negligent and complicit. In and around Parliaments and legislative assemblies, where our basic rights should be strongly supported, women were abused by colleagues in high positions. The allegations have run the whole gambit from inappropriate behaviour through to crimes against the victims.
Employers may be thinking, surely it wouldn’t happen here. Well, a report (‘Still Just a Bit of Banter?’) by the Everyday Sexism Project and the Trades Union Congress (TUC), published in summer 2016, revealed that of 1,500 women surveyed, over half (52%) of women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment while at work. For women aged 16-24 it was 63%. 80% of those that had experienced sexual harassment did not report the abuse.
The key lesson here is: don’t assume it’s not going on in your workplace[S1] : no workplace is immune to sexual abuse taking place. Granted, it’s not happening everywhere, but it’s sufficiently widespread, and impactful, on those affected that it has to be taken seriously. After all, most of those claiming that they experienced abuse did so whilst at work or in their line of work. They might not be direct reports of the abuser, but often the abuser had a position of power over those individuals. All of us have a right to inclusive, safe and secure workplaces, free of discrimination, harassment and abuse.
Clearly, it’s important. Creating an abuse-free, safe and inclusive workplace needs to be one of the top priorities for leaders. This is as important (and often intrinsically linked) to colleague health and safety, community safety, legal and regulatory compliance, financial probity and customer satisfaction. Sounds like a board level topic? If it’s not, it should be. And it needs to be in your risk register for early action.
I’m going to suggest four areas to focus on: Leadership, Policy, Process and finally People.
Leadership – Do all you can to avoid it happening. Your Chief Executive must make it clear that your workplace should be a supportive environment where people can be themselves, they can get on with their work without fear of abuse or harassment. Say you’re committed to this, that there will be no exceptions and that there is a zero-tolerant approach. Show your actions are even louder than your words and there’s no room for bullying. How about having a high-profile board level inclusion champion to lead on this?
Policy - If you have an established inclusion and way of working policy, this is an easier message to communicate. It’s important to single out abuse as being unacceptable but so are other forms of inclusion, discrimination and bullying. This needs to be clearly articulated in a document that everyone is required to read. You should also consider mandatory training courses with examples of good and bad behaviour. Giving people a chance to discuss and understand abuse and its impact is helpful
Process –Policies are essential, but what happens if people experience abuse? Show you mean it when you say there is zero tolerance. Have an anonymous, confidential helpline for your people to call if they have concerns, need assistance or want to report incidents about themselves or others. Emphasise confidentiality and responsiveness. Reassure people that each case will be investigated promptly and a response provided. If you think your organisation is too small to warrant this, it’s worth looking at contracting this to a third-party organisation.
People are your best asset here. Your leaders need to lead by example: ensuring there’s no abuse of power and demonstrating their awareness of the issues. The message needs to be communicated loud and clear: all people should know that sexual abuse is unacceptable. Make it clear where colleagues can go for help if they’ve witnessed or been abused. Ensure that all cases are followed up and abuse will not be tolerated. Check back with your colleagues: reiterate that you want to know about any abuse taking place.. Confidential staff satisfaction surveys can help here. And consider sharing evidence that people have left the business because of inappropriate behaviour.
By starting with the premise that sexual abuse might be happening in your workplaces, by demonstrating that it’s unacceptable and what’s there for people to get help, you’ll be taking the first steps to making sexual abuse in the workplace a thing of the past.