Leading through advocacy in corporate America

LGBTQ diversity and inclusion a business imperative

Two women with arms on shoulderGone are the days when LGBTQ equality and inclusion was regarded simply as an HR-mandated tick-the-box activity for corporations. Today’s organizations understand that it is a business imperative to recruit, retain and grow LGBTQ talent.

During the recent Grant Thornton webinar, “Leading through advocacy in corporate America”, sponsored by the Equality GT Business Resource Group, a panel of corporate executives discussed why it is critical for today’s organizations to champion LGBTQ equality.

Although great strides have been made in both policy and practice in supporting the LGBTQ workforce, there is much work to be done if today’s businesses want to successfully compete in the war for talent. Recognizing the business opportunities represented by a diverse workforce, many organizations are proactively facilitating LGBTQ diversity and inclusion through the structure of a business resource group (BRG). Grant Thornton has established 8 BRGs, including the Equality GT BRG which has been thriving for the past four years.

In general, BRGs established by corporations and other organizations share some common objectives including:

  • Increasing employee engagement through LGBTQ-friendly policies
  • Fostering a culture of LGBTQ inclusion
  • Facilitating opportunities for LGBTQ stakeholders to engage with community and client partnerships and networks
  • Enhancing recruitment, retention, development, and advancement practices for LGBTQ employees; and
  • Encouraging internal communications to ensure all employees are aligned with corporate best practices

LGBTQ equality: A business imperativeWhy should LGBTQ diversity and inclusion rank high on corporations’ to-do lists? The answer is simple according to Jamie Fowler, Grant Thornton National Managing Partner, Tax Services. “We have BRGs at Grant Thornton because there’s a business imperative. It’s not a social club. It’s for business.”

LGBT engagementConnie Lindsay, Executive Vice President and Head of Corporate Social Responsibility and Global Diversity & Inclusion at Northern Trust, Chicago suggested that if organizations want to be competitive in the marketplace, it’s critical that they proactively champion LGBTQ diversity. As businesses battle for the best talent, they must look to attract, retain and grow LGBTQ workers. “It’s not a program, it’s not an initiative. It’s a strategic imperative,” Lindsay explained. “It’s part of the strategy of the business. Diversity is the mix but inclusion is what we do with it.”

She added, “The formula I use to explain this business priority is ‘diversity drives inclusion; inclusion drives engagement; engagement drives innovation and innovation can drive the bottom line.’”

For Cushman and Wakefield, the issue comes down to changing demographics. The commercial real estate firm boasts 48,000 global employees, including 25,000 in the U.S. However, Adam Stanley, Global CIO and Chief Digital Officer, Cushman and Wakefield, who also serves as Executive Sponsor of the firm’s Integrated Network Group, Unity, acknowledged that the firm wants to grow about 14,000 employees over the next few years.

Stanley explained, “Literally, our survival depends on our ability to recruit more women, more ethnic minorities and more people of various backgrounds including LGBTQ colleagues.”

Northern Trust’s Lindsay agreed that talent identification is a key driver of LGBTQ diversity efforts amongst today’s businesses. But it requires much more than just attracting LGBTQ workers; organizations must also invest in creating opportunities and including LGBTQ employees in succession planning. “This work we’re doing has to be disruptive because so much of the system and the structure was not created for people like us,” she said. “It requires the understanding that the more talent we have, the more competitive we are, the more we win and that’s better for all of us.”

Grant Thornton’s Fowler agreed that fostering LGBTQ diversity equates to a meaningful business advantage. “Here at Grant Thornton, we often find ourselves with very, very challenging client business problems, she said.” “One of the things I’ve noticed is when you have a really hairy client business problem, the more diversity you bring onto your team the more creative that team gets in solving the business problem.”

Business resource groups drive progress Jamie Fowler“At Grant Thornton, we solve very challenging client business problems. The more diversity you bring onto your team, the more creative that team gets in solving the business problem.”

Jamie Fowler
National Managing Partner, Tax Services
Business resource groups play an important role in organizations’ efforts to drive business success via LGBTQ inclusion. John Barry, Vice President—Senior Relationship Manager, Global Funds Services, Northern Trust, explained that the firm’s Business Resource Council (BRC) focuses on clients, community and colleagues. Keeping in mind its wealth management clients, Barry said the BRC considers products that might be useful to LGBT families while working to enhance Northern Trust’s reputation to make the firm as attractive as possible to potential institutional clients.

These goals are critical, according to Northern Trust’s Lindsay, given the firm’s perception as a very conservative organization. But while the firm may be conservative when it comes to managing its balance sheet, it also was one of the first companies to offer domestic partner benefits and established a practice that provides wealth advisory services to domestic partners as well as benefits unique to the LGBTQ community. “If you want to get the attention of management relative to a Business Resource Council,” she said, “figure out a way to generate revenue.”

With a commitment to demonstrating “courage, conviction and commitment”, Northern Trust also conducts reverse mentoring for executive managers who seek to better understand the perspective of LGBTQ employees. “If we can move beyond that and begin to understand and talk about our unconscious biases, that’s how we really move the needle,” Lindsay said. “It really does require courage, conviction and commitment.”

In order to understand, however, everyone must be speaking the same language, something that can be challenging for different generations in the workplace, suggested Fowler. “The way we talk about orientation or even gender identity is very different today than it was five or even two years ago,” she acknowledged. “For somebody like me, it’s hard to keep up and the last thing I’d want to do is alienate someone or make them feel like an ‘other’. I need those diverse viewpoints on my team so education is critical.”

Education is especially important when trying to understand the perspective of someone dealing with gender identity. “It’s critical that we help people understand the language,” Northern Trust’s Lindsay noted. “How does that person want to be addressed? How can you create that safe space to ask a question in a way that is not offensive or condescending? How do you gain the courage and respect from one another to say ‘I want to better understand what it’s like to be you and how do we do that’”?

Becoming an active ally One of the best ways to better support and understand LGBTQ colleagues is to become an active ally. Within its four-year tenure, Grant Thornton’s Equality GT BRG grew from 10 allies to 450 today. Yet, while many of today’s business resource groups have increased participation by non-LGBTQ colleagues as an ally, active allyship is another matter. Fowler related results of a PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) survey which found that while 70% of men and 83% of women identified as an LGBT ally, only 8% of men and 19% of women acknowledged they were allies who actively advocated for their fellow worker.

So how can non-LGBTQ colleagues become better allies? The first step is to listen, according to Cushman & Wakefield’s Stanley. “Go and talk to them and tell them you want to be an ally,” he said. “Meet with someone who is an L or G or B or T or Q and just talk to them. Discuss what’s important to them and the language they’ll use and you’ll become a better ally.”

Stanley added, “The most amazing thing about diversity is the fact that we still have the same blood, we still have the same genes, we’re still the same people and I think the more you listen to us, the more you’ll realize that we have rich experiences we can share with each other.”
6 steps to LGBT inclusion
What’s new and next? While certainly organizations have made inroads in championing LGBTQ equality and diversity in the workplace, new challenges await around the corner. Chief among these is facilitating understanding between Millennials and their older colleagues. “What’s most intriguing to me is the challenge of getting Millennials who don’t really understand the corporate concept in general to acknowledge the difference between their life experience and what they experience at work until they are truly the majority,” suggested Cushman & Wakefield’s Stanley.

There is also the recognition that progress in fostering LGBTQ inclusion in the US is not always matched in other parts of the world. “We’re a global organization and we have to think about employees transferring and relocating to other locations where it’s not legal to even talk about this sort of thing,” Lindsay said. “We have to be very mindful of what the laws and regulations are around the world as it relates to LGBTQ.”

If recent developments are any indication, corporations and other organizations will also be playing a bigger role in public policy. Northern Trust’s Barry cited businesses’ reaction to a recent Indiana rights and discrimination law which would have prevented anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in employment, housing and public accommodations. “That law was pretty much brought down in an incredibly short amount of time specifically by businesses,” Barry said. “It wasn’t done by politicians, it wasn’t done by elections. It was accomplished by corporations that came in and said, ‘Listen, this is bad for business in the State of Indiana’ and it was gone quickly.”

Another public policy that companies are focusing on is the Equality Act which seeks to provide non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals across key areas of life, including employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally-funded programs and jury service.

“Right now, you can still be fired in over half of the states for being LGBT and an even greater number of states for the “T” specifically,” Barry explained. “The Equality Act bill was introduced a year and a half ago, and there are already 150 companies that are endorsing its passage. It’s a way to make their public voice known in support of LGBTQ and that is going to be a big opportunity and challenge for corporations in the future.”

Working together, corporations, business resource groups, the LGBTQ communities and their ally colleagues can collectively move the needle on LGBTQ diversity, inclusion and equality. Despite significant advancements, the problem is not yet solved.

Grant Thornton’s Fowler explained that “We have this wonderful motto here at Grant Thornton—bring your whole self to work. We’re able to have conversations of privilege about how we deal with these kinds of issues in a fairly high-level corporate firm environment. But that is not the case for everyone. It still is a question of emotional and physical safety for some. We don’t have this thing solved yet so there’s still a lot more conversation to be had and important progress to be made.”

Contact Jamie FowlerJamie Fowler
National Managing Partner, Tax Services
T +1 703 847 7630