Last reviewed 5 July 2017

Gudrun Limbrick looks at how to develop a team that is genuinely inclusive of LGBT people in the workplace.

Being gay is much more of a possibility these days. This is not because there are more gay people out there, but because the topic is much more out in the open. With openly gay celebrities, gay characters on TV programmes, in films, and in the media, we are now far more likely to be aware that some of our colleagues may be gay or lesbian. We are also now much more likely to meet colleagues who are open about their homosexuality. With the rise of gay rights (the right not to be discriminated against, the right to marry and so on) and growing social acceptance, there are more people who feel able to be open about their sexuality.

Not everyone in a team is going to get on with everyone else — we would not expect them to. People are, of course, unique individuals with their own personalities, life experiences and backgrounds. In our private lives, we can generally decide who we spend time with and we choose people with similar personalities, likes and dislikes as ourselves. We spend eight hours a day at work and cannot choose who our colleagues are going to be so there will generally be someone or more than one person who we may not get on with. That’s a fact of life. However, we do have an expectation as employers that employees will be civil to each other and will have a professional relationship with their colleagues.

If someone has, or chooses to exhibit, a prejudice against a colleague or more than one colleague, this goes far beyond a simple failure to get on with an individual. Unfortunately, gay individuals still experience harassment and bullying from other people at work because of their sexuality. Stonewall, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights charity, puts the number of people of working age who said they have witnessed verbal homophobic bullying at work at 2.4 million. That is a remarkably high number. Not all of those people will have experienced the bullying themselves but a significant proportion will.

A laissez-faire approach says that while people can sort these issues out themselves, there are always going to be some issues about something and it is not for employers to get involved. This, however, is a doomed approach. Left alone, such issues can escalate significantly causing problems for both individuals and the team they work within.

At the very least, bullying at work is a distraction for those involved (perpetrator and victim) and those who witness it. At its worst it can affect the mental health, self-esteem and wellbeing of the victim and may result in absenteeism. It may even lead to the resignation of the person involved. If the problem escalates, and management and HR become involved, it can sap time as people work to attempt to get to the bottom of the problem and reach some sort of resolution. The morale of whole teams can suffer if the issue is allowed to polarise opinion and create divisions.

Stonewall estimates that there are approximately 1.7 million lesbian, gay and bisexual employees in Britain, a number which means there are likely to be gay employees in any company. This is not an issue we can pretend is not going to be relevant to our company, because the chances are that it is already relevant, or it soon will be.

There is very clear legislation which means that should there be problems that the employer has chosen not to resolve, the employer could find itself in very hot water. Employees have been protected from homophobic discrimination and harassment in the workplace since 2003. The Equality Act 2010 protects employees from discrimination and harassment at work because of their sexuality. And, as employers are legally responsible for the conduct of their employees, if an employee harasses or discriminates against a lesbian, gay or bisexual colleague, the employer is liable. Not dealing effectively with an issue could potentially be an expensive mistake.

An organisation serious about ensuring that these problems do not arise needs to ensure that it has a comprehensive written equality and diversity policy which applies not only to gay people, but to all people who may experience bullying, harassment or discrimination in the workplace. All staff need to receive training in this. Similarly, there needs to be a grievance and disciplinary policy in place which will be adhered to if anyone is found going against the terms of the equality and diversity policy. Employers also need to ensure that people feel able to report any concerns or grievances they have to them.

Of course, there will always be people who are prejudiced against gay people, in the same way that there will always be people who are prejudiced against Muslims, or Catholics; people with a disability or women; older people or millennials. We live in an imperfect world and we have all met people who are intolerant against others. It would be an impossible task for an employer to bring to an end all prejudice, but it is not impossible to ensure that all negative actions which take place as a result of that prejudice are dealt with quickly and effectively.

It is said that gay people bring problems on themselves by telling people who really do not want to know about their sexuality. This, however, is a poor argument. In a close team, it is not possible to hide one’s sexuality as discussion of home life often warrants the sharing of such details which give the game away. As anyone wants to be open with their colleagues about their lives, so might gay people. Sometimes, people attempt to hide their sexuality but get seen with certain people, or in certain places, or dressing a particular way out of work, and the rumours fly rapidly around the workplace.

Prejudice may not always be deliberate but may arise from not knowing what to say, or what is offensive and what is not, or perhaps saying stupid things out of an ironic fear of looking stupid themselves. However, while it is important to recognise that problems are not always deliberate, it is also important that this may not mean that it is any less painful to the person on the receiving end. The employer has a key role in encouraging dialogue and understanding from the two different perspectives. It is only through this form of constructive dialogue and the development of understanding, with the victimised side having available appropriate protection and support of course, that there can be genuine integration of both bully and victim into a team.

Prejudice, bullying and discrimination in the workplace is inevitably a very complex issue. Teams can comprise very different people from very different backgrounds and perspectives who work closely together in high pressure situations. Few workplaces are entirely free from problems. However, the possibility of failure or the likelihood of difficult periods at time, does not mean that steps should not be taken to take the organisation in the right direction.