MI5 named the UK's most LGBT-friendly employer

The spy agency has come a long way to take the top spot in Stonewall's Top 100 Employers for 2016.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 17 Jun 2016

Equality and diversity have become much more of a focus for many of Britain’s firms – as execs become more aware of the business case behind it, as well as changing attitudes towards inclusion. So it's not surprising most employers like to shout about what they’re doing in this respect.

Even, it seems, the usually secretive MI5, which has just topped lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT) charity Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers. The list is compiled from submissions to Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index – a benchmarking tool to assess how employers are faring when it comes to LGBT equality in the workplace.

It’d be interesting to know just how much MI5 was able to divulge about its environment, since the participants had to demonstrate expertise in ten areas of employment policy and practice – including networking groups and career development. It's hard to imagine a Stonewall rep was allowed to sit in on an interrogation to get a feel for the workplace culture...

Some of MI5's changes have been fairly publicly discussed though. As well as a dedicated LGBT social network, MI5 has an annual conference for gay staff in conjunction with fellow spooks at MI6 and GCHQ. In a public show of support it also flew the rainbow flag over its headquarters on the day of London’s Pride march.

The ranking is surely a positive sign of the direction Britain’s employers are moving in – as recently as the early 1990s MI5 still had a ban in place on recruiting gay people to its ranks. It also reflects the scale of improvement that can be made in a short space of time if firms prioritise diversity and inclusion. MI5’s first efforts to recruit gay staff and encourage incumbent employees to feel able to be open about their sexuality didn’t actually start until 2008. 

Ruth Hunt, Stonewall’s chief executive, said, ‘MI5 has made fantastic strides in creating an inclusive workplace and has now appeared on the Stonewall Top 100 Employers list since 2012.’

The intelligence service was 25th in 2013 and moved up to seventh place last year, before taking the latest list’s top spot. Its director general Andrew Parker said, ‘Diversity is vital for MI5, not just because it’s right that we represent the communities that we serve, but also because we rely on the skills of the most talented people, whoever they are and wherever they may be.’

Over 400 organisations took part in this year’s Index, while more than 60,000 staff from across these organisations also took part in an anonymous survey about their employers’ attitudes towards workplace culture and diversity.

Unsurprisingly, the results did reflect there was still a way to go on inclusion. Only 27% of lesbian, gay and bi people feel comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation to all colleagues and customers – this was notably lowest among bi people (12% compared to 33% of gay men and 22% of lesbians).

The majority said they experienced better job satisfaction when they were ‘out’ to their colleagues, but it's clear employers need to make a concerted effort to making the day-to-day culture inclusive and not just hold the odd LGBT event.

Employees have noticed improved commitment from their employers though – 63% said senior leaders were showing more focus to lesbian, gay and bi equality (compared to 53% last year), but this was only 42% for trans equality.

Nevertheless, the fact MI5 came top reflects there has been significant progress among many of Britain's firms. The increasing prominence employers give to Stonewall’s list is also an acknowledgement of the growing interest in making LGBT equality a priority. Even Asda is shouting about its rank – a fairly underwhelming 83rd place, but in fairness, it’s the one area in which the retailer appears to be outperforming its rivals.

Top 20 LGBT-friendly employers

1. MI5
2. Lloyds Banking Group
3. National Assembly for Wales
4. B3Living
5. Pinsent Masons
5. Tower Hamlets Homes
7. Leicestershire County Council
8. Metropolitan
9. Clifford Chance
10. Royal Navy
11= Baker & McKenzie
11= PwC
13= Cheshire Fire & Rescue Service
13Victim Support
15= Newcastle City Council
15= Suffolk Constabulary
17= Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
17= Leicestershire Police
17= Welsh Government
20= Cardiff University
20= Creative Skillset

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