We recently interviewed Simon Feeke, who is Head of Workplace at the gay rights organisation Stonewall. We asked him about their recent campaign to tackle homophobia in the workplace.

Stonewall have launched a national campaign to tackle ´endemic levels of homophobia´ in Britain’s workplaces. What do you mean by endemic?

YouGov polling conducted on behalf of Stonewall shows that a staggering 2.4 million people of working age have witnessed verbal homophobic bullying in the workplace in the past 5 years. The same polling showed that 800,000 people have witnessed physical homophobia bullying in the workplace.

Our Diversity Champion Programme works with nearly 650 employers – who together employ more than 6 million people – right across Britain. Through this work we know that there is still a huge amount of work to be done before all gay people feel they can be themselves at work.

Are some industries worse than others or some parts of the country worse than others?

Reassuringly we saw organisations from across 38 different sectors enter our recent Workplace Equality Index – the definitive benchmarking of gay-friendly employers. We saw some impressive performances from across the public and private sector, with notable results from the Army, the Navy, and the Ministry of Defence as well as from the legal sector.  Unfortunately we know that there’s still some way to go in sectors like construction, insurance and the media. The media sector in particular seems all too complacent about creating gay-friendly workplaces.

One of your posters features two footballers and the slogan One is gay. If that bothers people, our work continues. Do you see the sporting world, or football in particular, as being especially homophobic?

I think it’s fair to say that attitudes in the world of football haven’t moved as far and as fast as those across wider society. Our research shows that 7 in 10 fans have heard homophobic abuse on the terraces. We also still don’t have a single top flight openly gay footballer.

Last year we ran a national campaign – our Rainbow Laces campaign – which aimed to tackle homophobia in football. The phenomenal response we received to the campaign from footballers, teams, politicians and celebs showed that there’s a huge appetite for tackling the problem.

We were delighted last year that Leeds United FC joined our Diversity Champions Programme and made a real public commitment to building a gay-friendly environment for staff and players.

Do you ever get involved in advising celebrities or sportsmen to encourage them to be open about their sexuality? And if more high-profile figures came out, would that encourage everyone else?

We certainly talk to people from across the country who want advice about coming out. I think we’ve seen from the bravery of figures like Tom Daley and Clare Balding that having visible public role models sends a really powerful signal.

Every time someone stands up and tells their personal story it makes it just a little bit easier for the next person to do the same. This is true of whether someone is a public figure or not. Stonewall works closely with business leaders to advise them about the importance of being yourself at work and the powerful signal that sends across an organisation. People perform better when they can be themselves – that’s true for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Your campaign goes onto say that over a quarter of lesbian, gay and bisexual people are not at all open to colleagues about their sexual orientation. Is that solely due to workplace discrimination or will there always be a percentage who just do not want to be open about their sexuality in the workplace?

Coming out is a deeply personal decision and it’s something that people have to do every single day, whenever they meet new colleagues or clients. Leading organisations realise that pro-actively creating an environment where gay people can be open about their lives is just good business sense.

Bisexual people can face particular challenges around coming out at work. If you’re known at work to be in an opposite sex relationship most colleagues will assume that you’re heterosexual. So unless a bisexual employee is particularly confident about being open about their sexual orientation or there’s an employee network group that makes a real effort to engage with bisexual staff, that assumption can easily go unchallenged. Similarly, if colleagues – gay or straight –are overheard referring to bisexual people as ‘undecided’ then there’s little likelihood that a bisexual staff member will ever come out, believing that they’ll be excluded by both. At Stonewall we’ve seen some good practice with network groups that are jointly led with representatives who are lesbian, gay and bisexual, making sure that the group really will meet the needs of all three.

What can Employers or HR Directors do to change this culture?

Firstly they should be joining Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme to get access to hundreds of examples of best practice. It’s also really important that there’s vocal leadership from senior levels of an organisation which sends the clear message that tackling homophobia is taken seriously.

They also need to make sure policies for staff are inclusive. Do you have policies about homophobic bullying? Are your maternity and paternity policies inclusive of same-sex couples?

Other organisations choose to support LGBT staff networks so that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered staff can network and advise on policies and best practice.

What are some employers doing differently that others can learn from to support the LGBT group?

The organisations who appear in our list of gay-friendly employers have a number of things in common. Senior leadership from the top levels of management, openly-gay role models at all levels of the organisation and a commitment to ensuring that policies are inclusive of gay staff.

We’re also seeing larger organisations that work globally really developing how they support LGBT people worldwide. Organisations like IBM and Barclays are leading the way in promoting equality right around the world – particularly in regions where there’s no legislative framework to protect gay people.

Do events like the Gay Oscars, which have a category for corporate ´Straight Ally of the Year´ (run by G3 magazine and Out in the City magazine), help?

Events to celebrate the contribution of those campaigning for equality are really important. We host the annual Stonewall Awards every November which recognises those across business, media and politics who have improved the lives of lesbian, gay and bisexual people. It’s also particularly important to recognise just how much straight allies contribute to advancing equality. It’s only with this support that we can fully secure equality at work.

Is Stonewall’s focus mainly in the UK, or are you involved in other countries? For example, have you had anything to say about Russia´s stance in light of the Winter Olympics?

 Stonewall campaigns to support lesbian, gay and bisexual people globally. We’re proud that Britain is a beacon of equality around the world and our experiences of the journey from Section 28 to marriage equality can provide important lessons for activists around the world. We work directly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the European Union. Importantly, all of our work internationally is led by LGBT activists on the ground.

LGBT activists in Russia have been very clear that they don’t support a boycott of the Sochi Winter Games for fear of a backlash that could worsen the situation even further. This is a position we support and we’ll be working with groups on the ground in the long-run, not just while the media attention is on Russia for the Olympics.

The Global Diversity Champions programme is the next logical step for hundreds of our current members, enhanced benefits include internationally focused seminars and workshops, worldwide benchmarking, country briefing resources and access to an exclusive network of top business leaders involved in delivering organisational equality on a global scale.

What progress has Stonewall seen since its inception in 1989?

 We’ve seen huge progress in the 25 years since Stonewall was founded. As an organisation we were founded in response to the pernicious Section 28 that banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality.

Since then we’ve seen the repeal of Section 28, the lifting of the ban on gays serving in the military, protections for lesbian, gay and bisexual people at work, civil partnerships, adoption rights, fertility rights for lesbians, the lifting of the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood and marriage equality.

It’s been incredible progress in just 25 years. But we’re all too aware that there’s still so much to do. On top of the problems that remain at work, we know that over half of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people are bullied at school. Poor mental health and suicide rates remain stubbornly high and hate crime still impacts disproportionately on the gay community.

How does Stonewall ensure that there is sufficient diversity in its own employee pool?

We take having a diverse work place incredibly seriously. It would be a hollow gesture if we were preaching diversity to organisations around the world if we didn’t live those values ourselves as an organisation.

We publish a clear commitment to diversity on our website and publish the make-up of our workforce for all to see:

  • 55% of our staff were women (up from 36% in 2006)
  • 20% of our London staff were from black and minority ethnic communities (up from 10% in 2006)
  • 12% of our staff were disabled (up from 6% in 2006)
  • 23% of our staff were heterosexual (up from 8% in 2006)

All of our staff receives training on issues like unconscious bias and we make sure that our job opportunities are advertised as far and wide as possible. 

Do you see a rosy future where everyone lives in peace and harmony? 

I think a rosy vision of peace and harmony might be a bit optimistic. But we do see a future where everyone can fulfil their potential regardless of their sexual orientation.