Coming Out as an Ally

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By Todd Sears

In the past few months I’ve spent a great deal of time in Europe and Asia discussing LGBT equality and Out on the Street with senior leaders from the world’s foremost financial services firms. From these meetings and my interactions with leaders at our member firms, it has become even more apparent to me just how critical visible, active allies (individual and corporate) actually are.  

In Europe this spring, I spoke at two LGBT client and network events for two Out on the Street member firms—KPMG and Royal Bank of Scotland.  From my American perspective, the visibility of LGBTs in the workplace in Europe is much subtler than we see here in the US. The distinction between professional life and personal life is much more defined and in many cases, separate.

Also, much of Europe has settled the larger issues of LGBT workplace and societal rights, very much due to visible allies—a key difference between Western Europe and the United States. One has only to look at the recent marriage equality debates in France and the U.K., which contained less venom and vitriol than the debates in the U.S. 

In Asia, where we are planning the inaugural Out on the Street: Asia in Hong Kong hosted by Barclays this Fall, which will be the first LGBT business summit ever in Asia, the dynamic between out personally and professionally appears to be almost the reverse.  While some individuals are comfortable being out at work, being “out” in their personal lives can be more difficult due to the fact that many people live with their parents well into their 30s.  

Historically, when gays and lesbians have been discriminated against by their natural families, they have created what has been called a “family of choice”—surrounding ourselves with friends and colleagues who support us. As Grahame Wright, Senior Partner at E&Y Singapore suggests, it is the opportunity for a company to become a key part of that “family of choice,” creating that safe space in less-than-safe countries. Workplaces in the region can be one of the few places where being out is possible and even comfortable. 

The role that companies play in advancing LGBT equality in the workplace is, and should be, global, especially if we look at the nondiscrimination policies and same-sex benefits hundreds of our companies offer their employees.  

How they play that role, however, can vary from country to country, or even within countries. Analogous to the situation in Asia, global companies that operate in much of the American South are one of the few places that offer protections and a safe environment for LGBT people.  

Similarly, just as companies operating in the southern U.S. states have become more vocal and visible on issues like marriage equality and the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), I foresee the same evolution in visibility and action in other places around the world. 

Ally programs are an important part of this activity, and recent research testifies to the value of these programs. The Power of Out 2.0 study by the Center for Talent Innovation that I co-authored, and was co-sponsored by Out on the Street, found that 83% of women and 70% of men say they consider themselves allies.

But the study also identified which of these self-identified allies were “active allies,” meaning they took specific and purposeful actions to support their LGBT co-workers. 

An “active ally” is defined as a straight individual who has done at least two of the following: supported a co-worker who was coming out of the closet; attended an event in support of LGBTs; spoken up to co-workers in defense of LGBTs; spoken up to a manager in defense of LGBTs; spoken up at a work meeting in defense of LGBTs; spoken up to a client in defense of LGBTs; or spoken at an event in support of LGBTs.

By these criteria, just 19% of women and 8% of men qualified as active allies. This surprising discrepancy suggests a new paradigm is needed for allies in the workplace. Looking at which ally actions LGBT employees most desire, it is unsurprising that a number of these actions focus on speaking up publicly in support of LGBT colleagues.  It’s also important to note that the items above that denote an active ally tend to be more reactive instead of proactive.  

But even better news: ally programs can contribute additional ROI to their companies. The research found that active allies are also more active and engaged to their companies overall.  For example, 40% of them serve as sponsors to other employees in their organizations. Moreover, 76% of active allies “love their work” and 88% are “willing to work harder than they need to for company success.”  

So, increasing opportunities for allies to become active has benefits to the company as a whole, not just to LGBT employees. So what can allies do to show their support and how can companies facilitate and empower allyship? 

Forward-thinking companies have focused on the idea, proactively putting allies out in front in many creative ways. Ally leaders at Moody’s, for example, add “I am an Ally to the LGBT community at Moody’s” to their email signatures and to their internal bios, so that fellow employees and clients alike know of their support.  

To address the challenge many allies raise that they need guidance, Goldman Sachs was the first company to create an ally certification program (for which they won the HRC Innovation Award), which focuses on teaching allies best practices for supporting their LGBT colleagues.  During pride month several years ago, KPMG displayed posters of senior leader straight allies in t-shirts with slogans like “My sister is a lesbian” and “My son is gay” and simply “I am an Ally.”  

Instead of waiting for a big moment to declare support, there are myriad small moments, which collectively have more impact. Allies can vocally support other allies. They can be visibly supportive of LGBT organizations with which their company is involved.  They key is that allies have to “come out” as allies, not just with LGBT colleagues, but with all colleagues.  Assumption does not equal support.  

For LGBT employees, the presence of allies is often looked to as an indication of how accepting a company is, and is the number one factor in the decision to come out at work.

In Asia, I was often asked how we can advance LGBT rights while still remaining culturally sensitive (the feeling of being a territory still lingers in much of the region).  While it can be challenging from social justice, religious, and cultural perspectives, to my way of thinking, it’s actually relatively straightforward from a corporate perspective.  

Companies have always had expectations (and in some cases demands) of regions and countries as a precursor to doing business in a locality.  In many ways it can be easier for a corporation to state these expectations, even on social issues, as they are positioned within a business framework.  Ally programs can be a great start.

Simply being vocal that LGBT inclusion, respect for LGBT families and safety from discrimination are baseline expectations for a multinational company to bring its business to a country could have massive impact.  Would Singapore consider removing Section 377A of the Penal code, which makes sex between two consenting men illegal and provides cover for all manner of bad behavior, if all the members of Out on the Street (19 as of this month) were to push for this as a condition of expanding their business in the country?  

I’m hopeful that with more “out” allies, both corporate and individual, that we’ll have the opportunity to find out. 

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Todd Sears is a co-author of the Power of Out 2.0 research and founder of Out on the Street the first organization designed to convene senior LGBT and ally leaders of the international financial services industry to focus on business opportunities and leadership strategies for and within the LGBT community. Out on the Street holds summits in New York, London and will be expanding to Hong Kong in 2013.  Members of Out on the Street include: Barclays, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Bloomberg, Citi, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Ernst & Young, HSBC, KKR, KPMG, Moody’s, Morgan Stanley, Nomura, RBC, RBS, UBS, Vestar Capital & Wells Fargo.

Todd is also principal of Coda Leadership, a strategic advising firm integrating diversity into business objectives.

He is the founding co-chair of Jeffrey Fashion Cares, a fashion show fundraiser supporting LGBT civil rights, youth, HIV and AIDS treatment and prevention, which has applied an innovative cost structure to raise millions of dollars since its inception.  He also serves on the non-profit boards of The Williams Institute of UCLA, The Palette Fund, The Asia Society Diversity Board, and Lambda Legal National Leadership Council. He received his BA from Duke University.

To learn more about Out on the Street, and upcoming summits in London and Hong Kong, please visit: www.outonthestreet.org

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