London Pride 2022 marked 50 years of LGBTQ+ celebrations in the UK. Over this timespan, the movement has grown exponentially and LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion have progressed immensely. However, many people still do not consider the workplace a safe space where they can truly be themselves.

The most recent pre-pandemic statistics reveal roughly a third of the LGBTQ+ workforce in the UK are afraid of coming out to their colleagues for fear of being discriminated against. Moreover, alarming statistics about mental health in the LGBTQ+ community – where levels of depression, self-harm and suicide are exponentially higher than in the rest of society – demonstrate that inclusion is far from widespread.

As businesses operating within society, we have a responsibility towards our employees, our clients, and the rest of the world, to practice and promote belonging, inclusion and diversity (BID). At Investec, we want to actively encourage people to speak up, be aware of biases and ways to be better allies.

We organised a series of events around Pride Month, where we opened up the floor to our employees. Hearing them share their stories and express their viewpoints was not only inspiring, it offered some tangible takeaways that can help every business be more inclusive.

1. Start conversations

Overwhelmingly, our employees brought up the need for fostering open dialogue. Andrew Summers, Head of Alternative Investments in London, observed there is often a lot of timidity on both sides. LGBTQ+ individuals might not want to make a big deal about their identity, or make things awkward for their colleagues. Meanwhile, heterosexual cisgender people may not understand the right terminology or may not want to offend.

In order to achieve true inclusion, Summers said we need to overcome this together. He said: “We have an obligation to be open with our allies, to be our true selves. And our allies have an obligation to be inquisitive and ask and be less timid. It’s ok to make mistakes, and we can disagree, but there needs to be an open dialogue.”

We all come from different perspectives and experiences. It’s ok to disagree.

Mary Obileye, Business Analyst in the UK Client Experience team, added: “We all come from different perspectives and experiences. It’s ok to disagree. There are things everyone disagrees with. But it’s about having that openness to having a conversation. You can still have a conversation where two people disagree but it doesn’t have to be an argument, it can just be an open conversation.”

Whether this is facilitated through panel discussions and forums, employee-led groups or informal networking events, encouraging people to participate and share their points of view can create a sense of safety and belonging.

2. Condemn bad behaviour

At the same time, companies need to draw a clear line between open conversations and unacceptable behaviour in order for employees to feel safe and respected.

Teboho Thamae, product owner in South Africa and co-founder of the LGBTQ+ With Pride Network (SA), explained: “There’s a difference between disagreeing on social topics and disagreeing on a person’s actual identity. You can’t argue with me when I tell you I’m gender non-conforming or gay. If we’re talking about how society or Investec should approach certain things, that’s different, we can have our opinions. But I can’t tell anyone else who they are and the same should be afforded to me.”

There needs to be clear and anonymous channels for reporting any discriminatory behaviour. Importantly, there also needs to be a culture of tolerance and of standing up for people. There is a reason why so many people are afraid to be themselves at work. Summers said: “In the right circumstances, 99% of people want to be out – why would you not? The only reason they are probably not is because of the circumstances and the environment, which means they feel that they can’t.”

Many of the speakers mentioned microaggressions at work as having a major impact on their ability to comfortably be themselves. Ajit Menon, head of People & Organisation, said: “Allyship for me is really about empathy, curiosity and it’s also about standing up when you hear the little jokes on the side, the micro aggressions, it’s about standing up for it, because if you’re quiet, you’re complicit and if you’re complicit you’re condoning that behaviour.”

3. Hire with intent

Although overt discrimination has been eliminated from hiring policies, there remain many forms of subtle biases within the process.

Teboho explained: “This term of cultural fit – sometimes people say you won’t gel with this team or work well in this environment because you might not be the right ‘cultural fit’. We need to be careful how we use that because that actually just might mean this space isn’t accommodating of people who are different.”

Equally, with the recent push for diversity and inclusion and ESG, it is easy for companies to fall into the box ticking exercise of hiring people for their diversity characteristics.

Ajit had personal experience of this: “A couple of very senior head-hunters said to me: ‘You’re in a great position. You tick a couple of boxes, you’ll find some great jobs.’ And I thought to myself, apart from how patronising it was, I want to be recognised for my competence, not the colour of my skin or who I am attracted to. That’s the kind of narrative I have faced more than once.”

Individuals want to feel valued for what they bring to the table, not who they are. At Investec, Ajit said that was never discussed – the focus was firmly on his qualities as a leader and plans for the business.

4. Share LGBTQ+ stories

Role models are hugely important in paving the way for diversity. This is why sharing individuals’ stories is one of the easiest ways businesses can encourage inclusion.

For Mary, it was reading an Investec employee’s story of being out in the workplace and obtaining equal parenting benefits for him and his gay partner that inspired her to join the company.

I never had role models I could look up to growing up. It’s incumbent upon us to tell our story. If we don’t, there will be many more teenagers in many more bedrooms completely lost not knowing where to go.

Ajit added this panel discussion was the first time he had seen people like him talking openly about themselves with such pride. He said: “I never had role models I could look up to growing up. It’s incumbent upon us to tell our story. If we don’t, there will be many more teenagers in many more bedrooms completely lost not knowing where to go.”

When people are able to truly be themselves, Mary said: “This is really important, not just for people who are LGBTQ+ but for people who are also not, to be able to get an understanding of the lives and experiences that we have and to be able to break any biases.”

5. Offer unbiased benefits

Companies also need to put their beliefs into action, and far too many organisational policies are still heteronormative. While we are seeing progress on shared parental leave, our employees raised the importance of non-gender specific parenting leave, which encompasses couples or individuals adopting children or having children through surrogacy.

At Investec, we are committed to supporting members of the LGBTQ+ community who want to have children, and have recently enhanced our AXA healthcare coverage for UK employees to include treatment for fertility, up to a lifetime limit of £15,000 per person. Our partnership with digital health app Peppy also offers confidential support and guidance for UK employees going through fertility treatments, pregnancy and early parenthood, as well as pregnancy and fertility loss, with access to expert consultations, tailored programmes and interactive events.

In addition, it is worth considering dedicated support for the transgender community in their transitioning journey. For example, our enhanced AXA coverage provides dedicated support for those suffering from gender dysphoria, including coverage for pelvic surgery needed to treat gender dysphoria. The Pride Network is continually looking to help to shape and implement more inclusive policies.