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A pinker kind of company: How LGBT inclusivity is good for business

When Jackie Perri was thinking of taking a new job 18 months ago, she worried that she would have to hide her sexual orientation, her partner and her two children. She worried about having to go back to when she started in the corporate world 20 years ago and felt she couldn’t be out.
“I would be lying if it didn’t cross my mind that I would have to go back in the closet,” she says. “I agonized over it. I talked to my children, to my partner. At the end of the day, I decided to come out in the interview. I asked, ‘What sort of employee resource group do you have? What sort of diversity inclusion programs do you have?'”
As it turns out, Perri had nothing to worry about. Her new employer Deloitte is one of the founding partners of Pride at Work (PAW), an organization that, since its founding in 2008, has worked with businesses to promote a safe and inclusive workplace environment for gay and lesbian employees.
Since then, Perri has co-founded Leaders to Be Proud Of, which recognizes gay and gay-positive business leaders who have made a significant contribution to LGBTQ issues or advocacy. And Perri, a senior manager in Deloitte’s corporate strategy consulting practice, now sits on PAW’s board of directors.
It’s a far cry from two decades ago when Perri was starting out in a tech department at CIBC—now also a PAW partner.
“Twenty years ago, there weren’t the employee networks and most people were very closeted. I didn’t feel I could come out. It is very stressful. You become very masterful at using pronouns, any of those kinds of things. You feel like you have a secret. Having to sit in a room and be subject to homophobic comments, you retreat and they don’t get your full self,” says Perri. “What pushed me to come out finally—six years ago—was as my children got older, I wanted them to be honest and truthful about their family. And I couldn’t expect them to be if I wasn’t being honest and truthful myself. It was a huge relief that I could be myself at work. And when I did come out, CIBC was very supportive.”
While Canadian lesbians and gay men have achieved legal equality in the last couple of decades, attitudes can be harder to change. Some corporate cultures still make it hard to be out. And while out workers tend to be happier workers, many companies are also realizing that making LGBT people part of their diversity efforts is good for the bottom line.
“We’re in business to make money and not for the good of our health, surprisingly enough. But what’s good for us is the engagement of our people. If they’re more engaged, they’re going to be more productive,” says Michael Bach, PAW chair and one of the organization’s founders. “There’s a reduction in absenteeism, in sick days, there’s better relations with their co-workers. If an employer is not allowing people to be themselves, if they leave, that’s a cost the employer has to bear. Plus word totally gets around.”
Bach has worked at KPMG since 2005 and is their national director of diversity, inclusion and equity. He was inspired to start PAW after attending a workplace advocacy conference in the US in 2006.
“I came back and said, ‘Where is the Canadian conversation?’ I ended up drawing together a group of friends and saying, ‘What do we need in this country?’ For the most part, we have rights, we do not have the same issues as our brothers and sisters in the States. We may not be fighting for our legal rights any more, but at the same time, we are still fighting for our real inclusion.”
Bach says he dates PAW’s formation from the first Professional Pride event in 2008. ProPride has been held annually since (the 2012 version is June 28) as a networking and celebratory event for employees of PAW’s corporate partners. The organization is expecting 1,800 attendees this year.
“In 2008, a number of us from different companies said, ‘We want to celebrate Pride, but we don’t have the budget, so why don’t we celebrate it together?’ We brought together our members and allies from the original 11 founding partners. It really propelled us into being.”
Since then, those partnerships have grown from 11 to 40, a result, says PAW executive director Brent Chamberlain, of a growing awareness of the rewards of inclusiveness.
“An organization should not be reaching out to the LGBT community in a marketing approach without getting their house in order,” says Chamberlain, one of PAW’s two full-time employees. “The gay community is much more likely to buy from a corporation they see as gay-friendly.”
But Chamberlain admits that progress is still slow. Many companies focus only on inclusivity for women, racial and religious minorities and people with disabilities.
“For many large organizations, this is something they still struggle with. Many organizations still look at the four equity groups and not much else,” he says. “Evolution still goes from compliance—what the government mandates as law—to diversity to inclusion. It’s not about just counting the people in the organization; it’s about making those people count.
“There are many organizations whose dominant leadership paradigm is not ready to embrace this mindset. One of the reasons they look at like that is they say your sexual orientation is not relevant in the workplace. You can be gay outside of work. But increasingly, the division between work and life is becoming blurred.”
Bach says that as a new generation enters the business world, openness is becoming more entrenched.
“We definitely see more people who are younger who have come out in high school or university, some who come with the expectation that the workplace will be open. But we have a number of older people, they’re just so accustomed to not being out that they can’t bear to talk about it. I was a flamboyant little kid. I just couldn’t not be out, and, believe me, I tried.”
Bach says that a corporation taking a stand can have a powerful effect on the wider society. And when, as part of his work with KPMG, he can do outreach to employees of other corporations, it can contribute to positive change.
“I was in Saskatchewan doing some work for a utility company, and held a meeting about these issues,” says Bach. “I was sitting in a room that, frankly, was not very friendly. But being able to affect those 30 people, they’ll go back to their people. It’s sort of a ripple effect. If I can change 30 minds, they’ll change 30 minds and so on. It’s slow, progressive change. It’s painfully slow sometimes.”
Perri is hoping that by the time her teenage children enter the workplace, at least some of that change will have happened.
“Right now, the LGBT community is the only one where it’s publicly acceptable to shame its members,” she says. “It’s the only community which is constantly under attack. There are the homophobic slurs and the attacks.
“Corporate Canada has big muscles they can flex. When corporations are willing to stand up and say they want to protect diversity, that sends a message. What I’d like to see for my children, both societally and in the workplace, is that sexual orientation doesn’t matter.”