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Sexual orientation: diversity matters

To tell, or not to tell? Mentioning your sexuality in job applications, interviews and the workplace is entirely up to you.

Finding LGBT-positive employers | Disclosing your sexual orientation | Your rights around sexual orientation issues

Finding LGBT-positive employers

Sexual orientation has become a significant part of the equality agenda of many organisations. An increasing number of employers are becoming more responsive to the needs and requests of their lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people (LGBT) staff.

Most employers see having a diverse workforce as good business practice but also value corporate social responsibility within their organisation. They want to attract the best candidates irrespective of their sexual orientation. They also know they can get the best out of their employees if all staff are happy to be themselves and this includes being open about their sexual orientation if they want to be.

The shift in attitudes towards supporting LGBT staff has been varied across sectors and employers within them. Some industries have been perceived as quite conservative in the past, for example, investment banking, law and accountancy,  but they are embracing equality agendas and are trying to appear more LGBT-friendly.

While some sectors may have been slower to adapt, awareness of LGBT issues can now be found across all industries. Public sector organisations have a longer history of supporting LGBT employees and so tend to have more structured support in place.

Where do you look for information on LGBT-friendly employers?

Research is vital in making sure you find an employer that's right for you.

A good source of help when looking for positive employers is Stonewall, a lesbian, gay and bisexual charity. Every year they produce:

Remember that the index doesn't cover all employers; just because a company isn't on the list, doesn't mean they're not an LGBT-friendly employer. Many of the companies on the index are large employers, but don't rule out working for smaller organisations where you might find it easier to get to know people and perhaps be open about your sexual orientation.

It's also worth checking the websites of companies you're interested in to see what policies they have and whether they refer to sexual orientation. Also bear in mind that people within the organisation will still have their own opinions but if the company has an LGBT-friendly policy it's a step in the right direction to avoiding, or being able to deal with, any discrimination.

Many employability magazines focus on diversity issues and may contain details of LGBT-friendly employers. The LGBT press may also feature relevant companies. You can also try career events that are targeted at equality, for example, the Diversity Careers Show.

Some universities are trialling LGBT mentoring schemes where they match you with an LGBT employee in an organisation within your chosen career that positively supports its LGBT staff. Ask the person responsible for the mentoring scheme at your university for further information about this.

What support is there for LGBT employees?

Many larger organisations have set up LGBT networks and these are a good sign of the prevailing culture of a particular employer. It's a matter of personal choice as to whether you join such networks, but if they're publicised openly on company websites it’s probably a good indication of the management’s view on the subject. It may also give you the opportunity to support and develop the cause further within the organisation, and indeed the sector. You could also find out whether there would be an opportunity to set up a new support group for LGBT staff, if there is not one running already.

Trades unions can be a good source of support and information. Many, such as the teaching and public sector unions, have LGBT information on their websites and hold separate conferences for gay members.

There are also networks beyond your employer that you could join. Regionally based LGBT professional networking groups are available, which can be used to make contact with LGBT businesses in your area. On a larger scale, there is the Gay Business Association, which is the LGBT professionals' network for the UK.

Disclosing your sexual orientation when marketing yourself to employers

Telling your employer or work colleagues about your sexual orientation is a personal decision. There's no right or wrong answer to the question: ‘Should I come out to a potential employer? And if so, when's the right time?’

The decision to disclose your sexual orientation depends on many elements, the most important of which is you and what you're comfortable with, as well as the nature of the work you do.

It can be difficult, however, to hide your sexual orientation and it may not be the best thing to do in terms of your work. Research carried out by Stonewall reports that people who have a supportive workplace climate, with robust, inclusive policies, feel more comfortable to be themselves, which then increases their productivity and performance.

Marketing yourself positively to an employer is always important no matter what your personal situation is. Think about how disclosing your sexual orientation may be done in a constructive way to show you have skills that make you stand out from other applicants.

Showing you can work in a diverse environment and manage preconceptions are excellent skills to have. Coming out involves risk taking, empathy, sensitivity, leadership and courage. These are all qualities that employers welcome.

Disclosing your sexual orientation during the application process

You don't have to disclose your sexual orientation at any point during the application process so don't feel like you need to include it in your CV, covering letter or application form.

If you are disclosing during the application process, ask yourself why and whether it's relevant to the job. For example, you may want to say you were chair of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people (LGBT) student society to show you have leadership and organisational skills, rather than just to mention your sexual orientation.

Increasingly, companies are asking for you to complete diversity questionnaires on paper and online applications, which often ask for your sexual orientation. However, this information is almost always just for equality and diversity monitoring purposes and shouldn't be seen by the shortlisting and interview panels. This means that any reference you make back to your sexual orientation at a later stage in the application or selection process is likely to be their first exposure to your disclosure. The same applies when you are in the job – if you've only disclosed on the employer's diversity questionnaire, your line manager is unlikely to know.

Discussing your sexual orientation at interview

Much the same applies with interviews as with the application process. If you disclose, it should be relevant to the questioning and the skill sets being sought by the question. It's important that you're confident and comfortable with sharing this information as well.

Always remember that an interview is a two-way process, and it's your chance to know more about the organisation. If you decide to let the recruiter know your sexual orientation, you could ask questions about the value of diversity in the organisation, or whether they have a support network for LGBT staff. If they don't, you can ask why.

You shouldn't be asked either directly or indirectly about your sexual orientation at interview. If you are asked, you don't have to answer the question as it has no bearing on your ability to do the job. Seek advice from organisations such as Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) if this occurs.

Telling colleagues at work about your sexual orientation

Once in work, what you say, or don’t say, about your sexual orientation is again up to you. You might consider your private life as private and separate from work or you might want to tell everyone at once because you have always done so.

Before you do anything, talk it over with someone. Ideally, this will be someone in work who understands the ethos of the organisation and whose judgement you trust. Finally, always remember that you should follow the path that will make you comfortable and allow you to perform well in the workplace.

Your rights around sexual orientation issues

The main law relating to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is the Equality Act 2010. It provides the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of your sexual orientation, either directly, indirectly, by association or by perception.

The Equality Act brought together all of the existing regulations that gave protection against any kind of discrimination. There are nine protected characteristics within the Act: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

Under the Equality Act 2010, organisations can take positive action if there is evidence that discrimination exists within a protected characteristic if all other factors between candidates are the same, for example, if there were significantly lower recruitment levels of gay people, yet their skills were equal. It also gives employers a duty to promote positive relationships between the protected characteristics.

What does the Equality Act do?

The Act provides for equality of opportunity when applying for a job, as well as in the workplace, with equal access to company benefits, training, promotion and transfer opportunities, and redundancy packages. It identifies and protects you against four types of discrimination in the workplace:

  1. Direct discrimination – when you are refused a job, for example, because of your sexual orientation.
  2. Indirect discrimination – when decisions made, principles, services and practices disadvantage you because of your sexual orientation.
  3. Discrimination by association – discrimination against you because of your association with another person, for example a work colleague, because of their sexual orientation.
  4. Discrimination by perception – when you're discriminated against based on someone's perception of your sexual orientation. 

It is also unlawful to victimise you because you've made, or are going to make, a complaint or allegation of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or you're supporting someone who is. Harassment, ie unwanted behaviour that offends your dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment for you, on the grounds of your sexual orientation is also unlawful.

You can also complain to your employer if a member of their staff has discriminated against you because of your sexual orientation. Employers can be made to be responsible for the actions of their employees who discriminate against others and they're encouraged to train staff about the regulations in the Equality Act to avoid any discrimination.

What to do if you think you've been discriminated against

If you feel you've been discriminated against, bullied, harassed or victimised because of your sexual orientation while applying for a job, either on the application form, during the selection process or at interview, you can contact Acas. You should try to get in touch with them as soon as possible as there are time limits on if, and when, you can make an employment tribunal claim.

If you have started a job and feel you're being discriminated against, bullied, harassed or victimised at work because of your sexual orientation, you should speak to someone within your organisation. They should take the matter seriously and have measures in place to deal with it.

Consider taking the following actions until you're happy with the outcome:

  • Keep a written record of any discrimination, harassment or victimisation to show your employer.
  • Look to see if the organisation has a bullying and harassment or dignity at work policy and understand what it covers.
  • Speak to your line manager, another manager or someone in the HR office to tell them what's happened and ask them to take action, referring to the Equality Act 2010.
  • Speak to the company's LGBT staff network, equality network or bullying and harassment adviser, if there is one, for extra support.
  • Contact your trade union if you're a member of one.
  • Your employer may offer a mediation service, which you may want to try to see if it can resolve the issues.
  • If the matter can't be resolved informally, submit a formal grievance to your employer. If you're not happy with the outcome of this then submit an appeal. Pay careful attention to the company policy on this area – there should be clear instructions on how to raise this type of grievance.
  • If all of the above fail to resolve the matter you can seek legal advice, with a view to taking your employer to an employment tribunal.
  • If you believe a crime has been targeted at you because of your sexual orientation you should consider reporting it as a hate crime to the police. Other incidents that aren't criminal offences can also be reported as hate incidents. More information on how to report can be found at True Vision.

Written by Marianne Savory, AGCAS Diversity Task Group, May 2016