How global businesses can harness LGBT talent

Companies will miss out on the skills that are vital to business success if they fail to put diversity and inclusion at the heart of their talent management, says author and consultant Stephen Frost.

Today’s global businesses may automatically assume they are LGBT+ (standing for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and other sexual orientations and identities) friendly because they have a more global, open outlook. However, it’s worth remembering that, even in Western countries, at least a third of LGBT+ employees are not ‘out’.In fact, being gay in largely ‘straight’ organisations automatically puts people at a disadvantage. That’s because straight is the norm. The default assumption is that people have a partner of the opposite sex. Breaking that norm requires effort, and often courage. This can detract from the job.Consider the following real situation I encountered with one of my clients last year. A global pharma company operated in the Middle East. One of its London-based star performers had a promotion opportunity involving a relocation to Qatar. This is a big decision for any executive, but it was especially so with this employee, because his first question was not about salary or working conditions but about whether he would be able to take his male partner with him.Empathy – putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and not assuming that everyone is like you – lies at the heart of this. That’s not being charitable, it’s being savvy. You want people to bring their whole self to work, not just because it’s kind but also because they will then do their best work and be most productive for your company.Here are three actions you can undertake to harness LGBT talent effectively:

1. Recruit widely

Even though we say we want ‘the best people’, we often recruit the best people from our network. Be humble, and be honest: these are not necessarily ‘the best people’. One way of checking you are recruiting the best people is by challenging yourself to leave your comfort zone and interview people from outside your network.In fact, interview people who are as different from you as you can handle. If you don’t know any LGBT+ people, then consider making it a specific point of your recruitment: place your ads in LGBT+ publications such as Stonewall's jobs board or Diversity Jobs, or make it explicit that you welcome LGBT+ talent. People won’t assume you are LGBT+ friendly unless you tell them.Remember that being LGBT+ friendly in your communications and marketing doesn’t just pay dividends in attracting gay talent; it is viewed favourably by other minority groups, too, as it shows you value difference. It may also help existing LGBT+ staff who are in the closet to consider coming out, as they will have increased trust in their employer.

2. Promote on the basis of merit

A leading professional services firm was convinced it operated a meritocracy. I challenged the managing partner to a decision-making exercise with his largely male team.At the annual promotion-to-partnership cycle, we placed the candidates on a whiteboard according to different diversity criteria. The results were revealing. All the ‘promotion-ready’ candidates were straight men who were already known to the team. Further analysis revealed that non-relevant criteria such as familiarity with a candidate’s spouse, shared interest in a football team, and shared social occasions (often involving drinking) were unconsciously driving the decisions.LGBT+ candidates were automatically at a disadvantage, because they were less likely to share details of their partners, more likely to be introverted, less self-promoting, and less ‘promotion ready’.When we assigned commercial results and 360-degree feedback to the candidates, the results were even more revealing. They showed that several LGBT+ candidates outperformed some of the ‘promotion-ready’ candidates. This acted as a good check and balance, not just on fairness but also on meritocratic decision-making and what was good for the organisation.

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3. Retain inclusively

In the example from Qatar, there was a strong possibility that the candidate would not have relocated. However, whilst it was entirely his choice, the company was supportive. They even went as far as to produce a handbook for line managers on supporting LGBT+ employees in challenging situations.Novartis, the global pharma company, has also produced such a handbook, which is used widely by its professionals around the world, including in Nigeria.Another method of retaining your LGBT+ talent is to conduct ‘stay’ interviews rather than ‘exit’ interviews. By the time an employee resigns, it’s already too late, and this is wasted talent if they are leaving for cultural as opposed to commercial reasons.By pre-empting any homophobia in the workplace and conducting ‘stay’ interviews ahead of time, you can demonstrate commitment to all employees that you value them, and move the relationship from transactional to motivational.Note that the above actions don’t necessarily require more budget; they require behavioural change. This is something that takes time and focus, but there are small nudges you can start today.Stephen Frost’s consultancy, Frost Included, promotes understanding of diversity and inclusion. He is author of Inclusive Talent Management: How Business Can Thrive in an Age of Diversity (Kogan Page).
Stephen Frost
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