Employment law in many parts of the world protects employees against discrimination based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
This legal obligation has been enhanced in many workplaces, where companies have implemented robust policies and initiatives to support LGBT employees and raise awareness by heterosexual colleagues of LGBT issues in the workplace.
While, in many countries, employers have been able to demonstrate real progress in building the visibility and confidence of gay and lesbian employees, a general lack of understanding and knowledge about bisexuality seems to have resulted in bisexual people remaining largely invisible within these workplace initiatives.
According to Stonewall’s James Lawrence, the UK equality campaigner’s latest Workplace Equality Index survey found that bisexual men and women are seven times more likely to disguise their sexual orientation in the workplace.
‘The experiences of bisexual employees show that the discrimination they often face can prevent them achieving their full potential at work,’ he told Gay Star News. ‘These experiences are often quite distinct from those of their lesbian and gay colleagues.’
As part of their work to support bisexual men and women in the workplace, Stonewall have produced a guide for employers, but it seems that even some of the UK’s most highly rated companies (from an LGBT employee perspective) are still struggling to find how best to support their bisexual employees.
Part of the challenge for employers is that while they may have established an LGBT employee network and put a lot of effort into LGBT initiatives generally, this may not be enough to reach out and engage with bisexual employees.
For example, according to a spokesperson for multinational technology company IBM (which was ranked eighth in Stonewall’s 2012 Workplace Equality Index):
‘IBM does not differentiate between lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender employees.
‘Our efforts to support employees and to generate wider awareness expressly includes bisexual employees - there are bisexual IBM employees who are a part of our LGBT network; who participate in our LGBT mentoring initiative and who actively contribute to making IBM a diverse and inclusive place to work.’
It’s a similar story for US-based consumer goods manufacturer Procter & Gamble (which was ranked 98th in Stonewall’s 2012 Workplace Equality Index). Spokesperson Mary Ralles confirms that Procter & Gamble doesn’t have any monitoring data that specifically relates to its bisexual employees - rather they take a one-size-fits-all approach through their LGBT employee network that is active in helping to ensure that mentoring and coaching is available to all LGBT employees.
According to Ralles: ‘Key to Proctor & Gamble’s diversity strategy is inclusion, so our efforts are around ensuring that everyone feels included, enabling all of our employees to perform at their peak and bring their whole self to work every day.’
However Stonewall’s Lawrence is of the view that this type of inclusive approach by employers is probably not enough to meet the specific needs of bisexual employees: ‘Too often stereotypical assumptions and beliefs about bisexual people and their lives, from both straight and gay people, mean that they feel unable to access the very initiatives that are meant to support them.
‘This lack of awareness and understanding can leave bisexual men and women feeling marginalized and stigmatized.’
One initiative that may help to build the knowledge base and awareness that is currently missing, is a major survey by US based - Out & Equal Workplace Advocates. With the data gathering stage recently completed, results are expected to be released in the coming months.
Out & Equal’s mission is that ‘to protect and empower employees to be productive and successful - so they can support themselves, their families, and contribute to achieving a world free of discrimination for everyone.’ The intention of this major survey is to shine some light on the unique and complex experience of bisexual people in the workplace.
Meanwhile, Stonewall advises employers looking to enhance their support for their bisexual employees to consider the following points:
- Sexual orientation schemes or single equality schemes should include references to bisexual inclusion with mention of the unique issues bisexual people face in the workplace;
- While recognizing the value of using ‘gay’ as shorthand to help simplify communications, when writing policy and strategies the full ‘lesbian, gay and bisexual’ (LGB) should be used. Using ‘gay’ as shorthand for LGB in a sexual orientation strategy can give bisexual staff the impression that the policy or procedure does not apply to them;
- Sexual orientation strategies should make reference to any bisexual-specific initiatives or programs that workplaces develop;
- Staff benefit policies should highlight that they are available to employees in both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships;
- When possible, bisexual staff should be consulted when relevant policy is reviewed.
One of the most successful strategies for engaging with LGBT employees and promoting equality in the workplace is for employers to support and encourage the formation of LGBT employee networks – generally a forum that enables LGBT employees to connect with each other, create social and professional networking opportunities and advise the organization on issues relating to LGBT employees.
However, Stonewall’s research has found that bisexual men and women often feel excluded from LGBT employee networks as these are perceived to primarily cater for lesbians and gay men, with little participation by bisexual employees and no focus on bisexual issues.
Stonewall’s advice to employers is that bisexual staff can be encouraged to more actively participate in LGBT networks by:
- Nominating a bisexual officer responsible for advising the network on current issues and responsible for bisexual inclusion;
- Holding an awareness raising event with a guest speaker from the bisexual community;
- Planning an event around bisexual workplace issues open to all staff and publicizing it throughout the organization;
- Developing an electronic network and idea sharing system to encourage participation from bisexual staff who feel uncomfortable attending meetings;
- Ensuring bisexual members are represented on steering groups and committees, therefore encouraging bisexual colleagues to become role models and advocates;
- Ensuring the network has a well-publicized confidentiality policy;
- Holding both ‘open’ and ‘closed’ meetings allowing bisexual staff to come to open events without having to disclose their sexual orientation;
- Offering to meet potential members of the network for coffee half an hour before meetings to introduce them to the network and make them feel comfortable.
Employers are operating in an increasingly complex world and the push for a diversity of talent and equality for all employees is continuing to challenge even the most progressive organizations.
But, having embraced the principle that top performing companies need to demonstrate to employees their commitment to inclusion, finding a way to engage and support bisexual employees is something that clearly requires further work.