THE BLOG
13/02/2016 16:30 GMT | Updated 11/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Have LGBT Workplace Indexes Turned Into Corporate Beauty Pageants?

Oftentimes in life, things run their course and it's time to try something different. In the case of LGBT Workplace Indexes, it could be time for a better way.

A couple of years ago at a workplace diversity conference, I asked a high-level diversity manager at a US Fortune 500 company what his number one LGBT diversity priority for his workplace was over the coming year. Without hesitating, he answered: "To maintain our 100% score on the HRC Corporate Equality Index". I had been hoping to hear about what initiatives were planned to further advance day-to-day outcomes for LGBT employees at the company, but the most top-of-mind item for him was that his company needed to continue to score well in a published workplace index.

Out Now - the company I head - was recently named in the 'Top 10 Diversity Consultants' Global Diversity List supported by The Economist. Something we were especially pleased to learn of - after being focused on better understanding and meeting the needs of LGBT people for 25 years now - as that list is a poll voted on by members of the public and readers of The Economist.

I would posit that - just like Out Now - most companies like to find themselves ranked well in their own fields of endeavour.

But I am afraid to say at Out Now we think that an accurate and honest assessment of the workplace situation faced each day by LGBT employees requires a move away from the various Workplace Indexes that currently see large organisations 'compete' to try and increase their rankings in indexes published by non-government organisations (NGOs) like HRC (USA) and Stonewall (UK).

Do workplace indexes deliver optimal outcomes for LGBT employees?

Nowadays, we think most LGBT employees care far less what the HRC score or the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index ranking is for an employer than they do about what the actual day-to-day culture is genuinely like for them at work.

Workplace culture happens when no-one is looking, not when a person from HR is filling in the paperwork to enter an LGBT workplace index.

Initially, workplace indexes were a useful idea for raising awareness, back when far fewer organisations knew of the kinds of workplace issues that can be faced by LGBT people. But things have moved on and the indexes have evolved into a kind of competition or 'beauty contest' - one where many large organisations try to secure an ever higher placed ranking in the index.

What is lost in all this is to focus on what should always be the most important goal: better understanding and improving the actual, on-the-ground, lived experiences of LGBT people at work each day.

Out Now has undertaken research showing that even LGBT people working at some of the most highly ranked employers can report problems in their own workplaces.

We have received more than 100,000 responses in our global LGBT2030 research program from LGBT people and some say that even though they work at the highest-ranking employers, they still face daily problems, because they try to be openly LGBT at work.

We recently heard from LGBT employees working at two separate organisations in the UK that hundreds of hours were now being spent each year working on trying to make sure their companies appear in the Top 100 of the annual Stonewall Workplace Equality Index.

The vast majority of LGBT people actually work at much smaller organisations, employing fewer than 1,000 people, but workplace indexes are mostly focusing attention on the ranking of larger companies.

What you are left with today ends up looking like some kind of beauty contest.

A google search of 'Stonewall Equality Index 2016' shows companies keen to issue press releases touting a placing in the Top 100.

There is nothing wrong with being proud of doing a good job, but we worry that corporate PR is becoming too much a part of the workplace index process for organisations.

A better approach

This is a very serious issue. We are talking about the day-to-day, lived workplace experiences of millions of LGBT employees and Out Now thinks LGBT people deserve better than this.

There are examples where organisations have begun to adopt a better results-oriented approach.

What we see as a better way forward is Corporate Benchmark Auditing (CBA) - where an organisation measures their own LGBT workforce responses on key questions about what it is like to be out as LGBT at work.

These individual organisation results are then compared with results from identical questions asked of a national LGBT2030 research sample - and then compared further with responses from national samples of LGBT people working at similarly-sized employers. The ability of a Corporate Benchmark Audit to measure LGBT workforce responses specifically against national data is what allows an organisation to properly understand key issues where it is performing above - or below - national average results for their LGBT employees.

Our first 2016 CBA programmes will take place across the US for a company working in financial services and another is being undertaken for an accounting employer.

We recently delivered a CBA for a National Health Service (NHS) Trust in the UK which was able to highlight clearly those specific areas where the organisation performs above average and - most importantly - uncover areas of weakness where more work needs to be done to make the day-to-day working lives of LGBT people better.

This is critical to understanding which workplace issues faced by LGBT people actually need most resource and attention. We much prefer this integrated CBA approach, compared to self-selecting workplace indexes or internal staff surveys alone.

Relying only on internal staff surveys provides a company with no way to really know how their LGBT workforce attitudes towards their employer compare to responses from right across a national sample. LGBT2030 national samples include responses from the broadest possible range of workplaces - large and small, most of which are simply not included in any workplace index measurement.

In a competitive market for top talent, a CBA approach is also smart business for those organisations looking to recruit the best LGBT employees to join their team.

The hidden cost of doing well

Some workplace indexes, although usually not expressly stated as being linked, are in practice more-often-than-not relatable to programmes which companies pay significant fees to access, which can generate substantial amounts of money for the NGO that publishes the index.

For example, of those organisations promoted in Stonewall's 2016 'Top 100' Workplace Equality Index press release, all 100 of them also paid Stonewall several thousand pounds to be part of the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme in 2015/16. This is despite the fact that the Workplace Equality Index is notionally 'free of charge' to enter. Companies that enter are clearly keen to be listed in the published 'Top 100' list, but that seems to be pretty closely relatable to paying Stonewall annual fees to become a member of the paid-for Diversity Champions programme.

This cost could be seen to curtail the types of organisations that can actually participate and expect to become highly ranked to those able to afford spending several thousand pounds each year.

Back to the future

Out Now thinks what now matters most is focusing on improving the actual day-to-day workplace outcomes that most directly affect the quality of LGBT people's working lives.

At Out Now, we say that 'LGBT' spells 'people'. We think companies need to be spending much more time and effort focusing on what today, tomorrow and the day after will be like for their LGBT employees - and worry much less about trying to compete to achieve ever higher rankings in a published index list.

LGBT people are counting on it.

Latest research: If you are an Ally for LGBT people in your workplace we would be pleased to hear from you. Out Now's new research into LGBT Allies and the issues they face is happening until February 29, 2016. You can take part in the survey at http://Work.LGBT - it takes around 6 minutes and your answers are confidential.

25ON - Out Now - 25 from Out Now on Vimeo.