In today's global workplace, diversity inclusion is a business imperative – but in many cases this does not include fostering a welcoming culture for LGBT employees. Sabrina Zolkifi shines a spotlight on those who do nurture their diverse staff, and asks why this is important to engage and retain talent.

Despite being a melting pot of ethnicities, religions, cultures and work ethic, many Singaporean businesses are still struggling to balance the need for equality with the controversy that surrounds the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Much like other diversity issues – such as gender or harmonising a workplace culture filled with employees harbouring differing religious beliefs – the tolerance of employees’ sexual preference has been proven to have a positive effect on recruitment efforts, retention rates and overall favourable employee branding worldwide.

But unlike these issues, LGBT inclusion in the workplace isn’t something so openly talked about in corporate South East Asia. Despite events such as Pink Dot (Singapore’s own annual gay pride parade) making its annual mark in Singapore to get the message of equality across, many businesses are just not quite there yet.

From an outside perspective, it is understandable why. The Penal Code 377A, a legislation that criminalises sexual acts between two consenting male adults, has been so entrenched in Singaporean culture that most are aware the law stipulates up to two years in jail for flouting the rules.

Yet with an ever-expanding global mindset and understanding that equality extends to sexual preference, the law does not reflect many employers’ beliefs on the matter.

“To remain competitive, multinational corporations and local enterprises benefit from addressing different cultures, languages, geographic origins and professions in their business strategy,” Tracey Ho, IBM Workforce Diversity Leader in APAC, says.

Diversity is no longer about race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or numbers. It's about broadening the definition and objectives to ensure we create a globally sensitive corporate culture that fosters and leverages diversity of thought and relationships.

Coming out

A study by the Corporate Leadership Council found nearly 80% of executives globally expect a greater focus on leveraging diversity for business goals over the next three years.

The same study also found companies with high inclusion and diversity programmes reported discretionary effort increased 1.12 times, while employees’ intention to stay jumped 1.19 times. Team collaboration and team commitment also increased by 1.57 times and 1.42 times respectively, for companies with strong diversity and inclusion programmes.

IBM has been striving to provide an inclusive workplace for employees since the mid-20th Century, and in the 1990s it placed a strong focus on “eliminating barriers and understanding regional constituencies and differences between the constituencies”.

“As a result of the Council's work with our HR teams, IBM now offers Domestic Partner Benefits for LGBT employees in several markets worldwide,” Ho says.

While IBM’s stance may seem extremely forward within Singapore, it isn’t the only company which strives to be a fair employer. One of Deutsche Bank Singapore’s employee resource groups is dbPride, a support system for LGBT employees.

Jason Ortiz, the bank’s commodities business manager and the regional chairperson for dbPride, says it is important companies offer these sorts of inclusive groups as it creates a comfortable workplace for LGBT to feel wanted and a part of the organisation.

dbPride has been present in APAC for about three years, Ortiz says, adding it first started as an online organisation. As an active member of dbPride New York before relocating to Singapore two years ago, he is fully aware of the need for more such groups in countries like Singapore, but admits it took a while for them to gain a foothold in Asia.

“In Singapore, it’s very conservative regarding sexual orientation, especially with the Penal Code 377A,” he says.

“I can’t say that’s in direct correlation to the banking world, but I will tell you that when I came out here, I was very worried about being a gay individual.”

All for one

Another organisation that has been open with its support for the LGBT community is Google.

Google – a well-known advocate for equality and inclusive workplace culture – has 19 diversity groups and has been championing them since the company was founded in 1998. The company’s LGBT resource group helps LGBT employees, who are affectionately known as ‘Gayglers’ (a play on the nickname ‘Googlers’ given to all staff), focus on diversity training for management and staff; the formation and promotion of minority employee groups and programmes providing for diversity in procurement.

“It is imperative that we hire people with disparate perspectives and ideas, and from a broad range of cultures and backgrounds. This philosophy won't just ensure our access to the most gifted employees; it will also lead to better products and create more engaged and interesting teams,” Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, said.

Although dbPride has a presence in Singapore, it is not yet a recognised chapter within the bank’s network and Ortiz admits the country isn’t quite ready for it yet. However, his team has been pushing forward, and one of the biggest steps they took was to gain a buy in from senior management.

dbPride’s sponsor is Robert Vogtle, Deutsche Bank’s CFO for APAC, and Ortiz said having someone who sits on the bank’s board lending his support as a ‘straight’ ally goes a long way in creating awareness and support within the organisation.

IBM took the same approach in growing its diversity and inclusive awareness when in 2008 and 2009, a senior openly gay IBM executive conducted a number of roundtables in the region.

“This created the environment where a couple of local employees in Greater China and India were willing to come out and champion the launch of the local EAGLE network in 2009,” Ho says.

IBM’s EAGLE Diversity Network Group (Employee Alliance for Gay, Lesbian Bi-sexual and Transgender Empowerment) was officially launched in 1995 to promote a safe and open working environment for LGBT employees.

“EAGLE provides them with opportunities for professional and social networking, mentoring and career development, participation in community outreach programmes as well as input into IBM’s overall business strategy,” Ho says.

dbPride is also spearheading several internal training programmes to help the organisation in Singapore prepare to be more inclusive and accepting, and one of those is the straight allies campaign for non-LGBT staff who would like to show their support.

“One of things we’ve done is we’ve started handing out cards and says ‘I am an ally’, which really just says ‘I am supportive of who you are and of you bringing your whole self to work’,” Ortiz says.

Your end goal is that everybody is cognisant of everyone’s differences and nuances. People might want to ignore these differences, but the best approach is to understand what these differences are."

“Generally, people who feel wanted and included are going to work harder for you and their loyalty will belong to you.”

A study by the Centre for Talent Innovation last year found employees who are not openly gay in the office, or do not feel comfortable enough to ‘come out’, are 40% less likely to trust their employers. Because of this, 73% said they were planning to leave their current job within the next three years.

Ho says the greatest benefits of providing an inclusive workforce is the increased innovation the company can leverage off.

“We believe there is an inextricable link, a link between the LGBT community and a creative, open and questioning society, that provides the foundation for innovation in business,” she says.

“It’s only when you have diversity around the table – that you get that spark, that creativity, that creates a smarter solution,” Ho says.

Inside Scoop

Getting serious about diversity It’s all too easy for diversity and inclusion programmes to be lip service. CEB shares some tips on what you can do to create a more diverse workplace.

In Singapore, only 28% of employees believe their organisation values divergent perspectives, while less than half of global employees consider their work environments as inclusive.

According to The Corporate Leadership Council’s ‘Creating Competitive Advantage through Workforce Diversity’ report, one of the ways companies can drive diversity is by improving the leadership value proposition.

The report said this can be done by “aligning personal goals of diverse high-potential employees to leadership opportunities and helping reduce the personal sacrifices necessary to advance to leadership positions”.

Organisations can also neutralise biases by eliminating the impact it could have on talent management decisions, and modify them to “increase the objectivity and equity of talent decisions”.

Companies should also localise their diversity and inclusion initiatives so that cultural nuances can be better addressed.

“To do this, organisations should work with local leaders to set feasible short-term outcomes and visible milestones to assess progress,” the report said.

Lastly, leaders should hire for inclusive behaviours, and access managers based on their past achievements in meeting diversity and inclusion goals, and how they will carry out similar objectives in the future.