It might seem strange for the chair of Stonewall to feel uncomfortable coming out to colleagues. But when I became group brand director at Aviva, my first position in the City, I decided to keep quiet about this aspect of my identity.
I had been married for 16 years to a wonderful man when astonishingly, in 2008, I fell in love with a woman. I was working for British Gas at the time and colleagues were supportive when I told them. They could see how upsetting it was coming so out the blue.
After coming out in one workplace, I then left to join Aviva. People I respect advised me to establish myself as a marketing professional and a senior woman in the male-dominated City before coming out. They were trying to help me, so I took the decision to keep quiet about being gay.
And that’s what I did until my first appraisal 12 months later, when my boss told me I’d performed well, but that I had completely lost my sparkle. I felt a surge of anger, because I knew it was true. My performance was being affected by not being myself. The next day I came out to colleagues at a team event. Some were not surprised. Others applauded. And I haven’t turned back - I’ve been coming out over and over again ever since.
My experience is far from unique. A Stonewall study revealed that one in five LGB employees in the UK (approximately 323,000 people) has experienced verbal bullying at work in the last five years because of their sexuality. With this in mind, it is no surprise that many are still hesitating to come out - which is why it is so important that businesses are proactive in their support.
Moreover, research shows that businesses benefit from encouraging staff to be open about their sexuality. They get the most from their workforce, do better at retaining talent and build stronger relationships with LGBT customers.
Thankfully, a great deal of thought is now going into changing attitudes in the workplace. But I also know companies that want to promote equality, but do not know how.
For me, there are three important steps they can take.
The most diversity-friendly companies provide comprehensive and mandatory training, covering the importance of LGBT equality at work. This includes information about the 2010 Equality Act, which protects all LGBT people from discrimination.
2. Tackling unconscious biases
Training should also challenge engrained language and habits. Combating ‘unconscious bias’ in the workplace is one way of doing this. It is normal to have biases towards some people and not others and not being aware we are doing it.
Our biases can be shaped by our upbringing, who we know and our experiences. But understanding these biases can help create a more inclusive workplace as people uncover the deeper reasons why they might treat people in certain ways.
It’s also fundamental businesses make sure they consult with relevant LGBT network groups, as they can provide practical guidance, insight and support to make such training successful.
3. Establishing networks
Establishing a LGBT network is one of the most effective ways of making LGBT staff visible at work, and I’ve loved getting involved with Aviva Pride. For employees, they provide unique networking opportunities and a means of peer support. For management, they allow employers to engage directly with the needs of staff, recognise which policies may impact on LBGT employees and understand changes that would improve their workplace experience. These groups can be even more effective if they include ‘straight allies’, so that all staff have the opportunity to be involved in promoting LBGT issues.
I’ve got a simple goal: to make being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender unremarkable. But I also want employers to understand that having LGBT employees happy and themselves at work can help business. If people are themselves at work, they will be happier and more productive. That’s not going to happen if they feel they have to hide something that is so fundamental to their identity.
So I want all organisations to take these bold and visible steps to combat inequality. It’s a no brainer: happier workers - and a better business.
Jan Gooding is chair of Stonewall and group brand director at Aviva