What’s the use of a gay staff network?

I “came out” at Linklaters shortly after I joined the firm as a trainee in 1994. I don’t recall anyone expressing much surprise or outrage at the time and my working life carried on much as it had before.

Mark Middleton, partner, <a class=Linklaters” src=”Pictures/web/j/l/p/mmiddlet_150.gif” />

Mark Middleton, partner, Linklaters

So I confess that I hesitated slightly when I was asked two years ago to co-chair our re-launched Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (LGB) staff network. This wasn’t because I felt nervous about what colleagues would make of me taking on the role, but rather because I didn’t immediately see the need for an LGB network at our firm. After all, I thought, this was 2009. Did the international, culturally-diverse and meritocratic firm that I knew Linklaters to be really need a network dedicated to the interests of its gay staff? Really?

Talking to gay partners and staff, at Linklaters and elsewhere, quickly illustrated that my own experiences did not necessarily reflect those of other people. Some people had chosen to wait until they felt more established at their firms before coming out to colleagues, while others had chosen never to come out at all. If and when to discuss sexuality at work is, of course, a personal issue and it is not the place of any employer to dictate whether and when to share this type of information. That said, it seems quite obvious to me that a happy and successful working environment relies, amongst other things, on people feeling relaxed and confident in themselves. A responsible employer certainly needs to ask itself why an employee might choose not to discuss their home life at work. Is the employee concerned that coming out might prejudice their performance appraisal? Or are they worried about their prospects for promotion? Are these concerns justified in any way and, if so, what is the firm going to do to address those concerns?

Linklaters has long prided itself on being a diverse meritocracy where people progress on the basis of their performance alone. However, it was clear from informal feedback that some of our LGB staff were not confident that the firm’s meritocratic culture extended to gay people. To gather views and to identify issues that needed to be addressed, the firm carried out a survey of all partners and staff (gay and straight) in the London office. We asked a very wide range of questions, investigating people’s perception of how inclusive Linklaters’ workplace culture was, people’s awareness of the availability of employee benefits to LGB staff and their partners and people’s direct experience of intolerance or homophobia.

We were delighted to receive more than 600 responses to the survey and were generally very encouraged by the results. These supported overwhelmingly the proposition that Linklaters has an open and tolerant culture where people are judged on merit. Of course, the survey also revealed a number of areas where we could do better. For example, while the firm has for many years offered employee benefits such as private healthcare to partners of LGB staff, this policy had not been sufficiently promoted meaning that a number of gay staff were unaware of it. We have since introduced practical changes to make sure that the full availability of these benefits are promoted and are also carrying out a full review of the employee benefits package to make sure that they do not prejudice gay staff.  However, equally as important to the specific results revealed by the survey was the very fact that the firm sought views via the survey, shared the results openly with all staff and committed to addressing the issues that were identified. The survey revealed, above all other things, that LGB staff at Linklaters did not want to rely on the firm’s reputation as a meritocracy alone. They wanted to be able to hear the firm’s inclusion of its gay staff much more clearly articulated and to see and hear more from senior gay people within the firm. They wanted the firm to set a tone that was unequivocally inclusive. A thriving LGB network is a key part of setting such a tone. It says to us, our clients and our future employees that we are confident in ourselves as a firm and are supportive of all of our people. It remains a matter for individuals joining Linklaters to decide if and when they choose to come out, but they will be able to make that decision in the secure knowledge that they will find support both from within and outside the LGB network.

So, to revisit my initial hesitancy as to whether an international, culturally-diverse and meritocratic firm like Linklaters needs a network dedicated to the interests of its gay staff. Yes, it does. Really.

Mark Middleton is the joint graduate recruitment partner at Linklaters