02 Feb 2016

Fostering a work culture for all

I live as an openly gay man. I like to think that I am a confident individual. However I still find it difficult to talk about my partner at work.

It’s not that I’m worried about what others may think, or about my career; but rather this awkwardness stems from my internalised homophobia – the roots of which were seeded throughout my formative teenage years where I was relentlessly bullied in the school-yard for being ‘gay’ – a word the meaning of which I did not even understand at the time!

It also stems from conversations I had with people. People whom I looked up to and admired who, often unwittingly, through their jokes, innuendo, indeed through their everyday vernacular would be hurtful and discriminatory towards me as a person.

A lack of gay role-models made it all the more difficult to positively identify as a gay man.

My behaviour is not unique. Many same-sex attracted people continuously self-censor. Every new interaction carries the risk that someone who is same-sex attracted may have to ‘come-out’. As anyone who has “come out” can tell you, this can be an incredibly frightening, confusing and painful experience: how will people respond, will people treat you differently, will your relationships with them be compromised?

In a work context – particularly in a large organisation – this coming out process does not happen just once – it happens on a daily basis.

Given how integrated our work and personal lives are becoming, work can be a very lonely place if you cannot do something as simple as talk about what you and your partner did over the weekend for fear of ‘outing’ yourself.

Corporates have an important role to play in creating a safe environment for employees. Employer support of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) employee support networks plays a critical role, not only in promoting equality, but in creating a culture of inclusion and an environment in which people can safely bring their “whole” selves to work and not feel they need to self-censor critical aspects of who they are and what they value.

Sexual orientation is fundamental to identity. The ability to wear it as a given – be it by the wedding ring on the finger, the photo of a spouse or children on the desk, or simply by talking about a weekend with the family is something heterosexual colleagues need not give much consideration. There is nothing wrong with this. It is implicit, done naturally and without agenda.

However, thanks to generations of conditioning and the long prevailing “norms” of society, this is not necessarily the case for non-heterosexual people. Someone who identifies as gay will often feel unable to freely talk about their partner – or what they did over the weekend.

Corporate support and endorsement of LGBTI employee networks and community events, such as NAB’s support Pride@NAB and  partnership with the Midsumma Festival, send a strong message to employees who identify as LGBTI. They unequivocally demonstrate that their organisation is supportive and respectful, wants to deepen its understanding of challenges specific to their situation, and values their perspective, views and contribution.

In 2015 the bank’s support of its Pride@NAB network was expressly endorsed by the Chairman with a NAB Chairman’s award for diversity and inclusion.

This kind of support and endorsement can unlock real value for a business. It creates an environment in which it is safe to have the frank, honest and sometimes difficult conversations that lead to better customer experience and work conditions for LGBTI members of our communities. It encourages people to be themselves and become more than they thought they could be.

But at the end of the day – it is not about the awards or the productivity or the engagement. It is about business demonstrating leadership and having the courage to and compassion to do the right thing, creating and fostering a culture in which all people are valued, respected and safe – and by doing so building better workplaces, better businesses and a better society.

Mark Sawyer is an Associate Director, Account Management at NAB as well as a Pride@NAB committee member. NAB is the official banking partner of the 2016 Melbourne Midsumma Festival.

First published in the Herald Sun on January 29th 2016.

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