Five ways construction firms can bolster LGBT inclusion

As LGBT rights charity Stonewall organises its first ever conference focusing on gay and transgender equality in the construction industry, Richard Chapman Harris provides advice on how to make your workplace more inclusive.

The construction industry has made a lot of progress over the past decade to become more inclusive of women and minority groups. However, there is still much progress to be made, and a conference being organised by Stonewall in London on 30 November will go some way towards highlighting what more can be done to tackle discrimination and make lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees feel included.

 "LGBT and heterosexual role models are both important, with ‘straight allies’ playing an essential role where LGBT staff may feel less comfortable speaking out."

Research has shown that two in five lesbian, gay and bisexual employees in the construction industry don’t feel comfortable being open about their sexual orientations with their immediate colleagues, while homophobic and transphobic comments remain problematic on construction sites and throughout the industry.

There is also a lack of understanding of sexual orientation diversity at management level, impacting on levels of trust and productivity. This has negative implications for recruitment and retention. Stonewall’s slogan, ‘People perform better when they can be themselves’, is not only common sense but also makes business sense. This is supported by a recent study by financial services company Credit Suisse, which states that ‘striving toward a full framework of diversity and inclusion in the workplace is both pro-LGBT and pro-business.’

Research has shown that making the workplace more inclusive for LGBT employees will bring business benefits in many ways, including:

  • Improving job satisfaction and productivity, allowing not only gay and transgender staff but all staff to work to their full potential.
  • Helping to attract people from across the talent pool and ensuring that nobody is discouraged from joining the workforce.
  • Improving the business’s reputation with minority groups as well as the majority; heterosexual audiences also scrutinise businesses for their human rights and equality and diversity record.

More needs to be done to make construction industry workplaces more inclusive. Here are five strategies to achieve this, with practical examples.

1.    Get to know your business 
Are there good or bad examples of LGBT inclusion in your offices? Have you ever asked? Carry out an anonymous survey asking staff to share their thoughts on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) with specific questions on sexual orientation and transgender identity. Mott MacDonald recently heard from nearly 2500 members of staff who provided us with ideas and suggestions which we have embedded in our EDI Action Plan.

2.    Be open to discussing LGBT inclusion 
It’s important to ensure staff know they can discuss equality and diversity openly and that the business regards these conversations as beneficial. It’s also valuable to designate conversations to specific key subjects, as experiences can be very different among different protected characteristics such as gender, race or disability. At Mott MacDonald we are running a series of online focus groups for staff to add further detail to the findings from our survey. We are specifically focusing on five areas – age, disability, gender, race and LGBT – to open up channels where issues and opportunities relating to diversity can be discussed.

3.     Create centralised resource and responsibility
Staff need to know whom they can go to with an issue or idea on EDI. This could be a full time equality and diversity practitioner, a named senior champion, or an employee network group. At Mott MacDonald, the Advance Network was set up by employees, and secured senior sponsorship to promote and support EDI across the full spectrum including LGBT inclusion. Champions are available across the UK and provided with time to support colleagues in their regional areas which shows the organisation’s commitment – many networks are run by volunteers who often provide support in their own time.

4.     Offer support to all staff  
Equality and diversity can often be misunderstood as ‘political correctness’ or can even be described as remedial and insulting to minority groups. For example, people may think LGBT staff don’t need the above ‘special treatment’ to progress, which might indeed be true. What LGBT and other minority staff do need is a culture that is genuinely open to their difference and abilities.

Unconscious bias training is a useful intervention in this area as it reminds us all that we can sometimes judge each other unfairly based on ignorance. Our brains naturally try to fill in the blanks to help us make sense of the excessive stimuli we experience in our day-to-day lives. However, these mental shortcuts can result in bad, inaccurate or biased choices. Mott MacDonald’s board have received unconscious bias training and coaching, and unconscious bias workshops are offered as ‘lunch and learn’ sessions open to all UK staff.

5.     Explore Quick Wins and Long Term Goals 
To effect cultural change there needs to be an understanding of the current situation and desired long term goals, and the journey required to reach them. Inappropriate language is a key area that needs to be addressed in the industry. A good step would be to outline a ‘zero tolerance’ approach in policy, giving examples of unacceptable language to prevent any excuses. It is also advisable to remind people that what they view as ‘just a joke’ or ‘banter’ could be considered homophobic and have a negative impact on others.

A lack of role models is another key area for immediate and long term action. LGBT and heterosexual role models are both important, with ‘straight allies’ playing an essential role where LGBT staff may feel less comfortable speaking out. At Mott MacDonald we have a Bullying and Harassment Working Group within which HR representatives and managers from each business unit collaborate to help create an inclusive workplace.

Being inclusive is not only a ‘nice thing to do’; it is core to business sustainability. The Equality Act 2010 outlines several responsibilities for businesses, and offers protection against bias and discrimination to current and prospective staff. The Public Services and Localism Acts will also impact on business development, as clients view inclusive workplaces as more reliable and less risky.

However, an inclusive organisation will do more than simply adhere to equality legislation. By following the strategies above, workplaces can improve the job satisfaction of LGBT employees, increase productivity, and attract people from across the talent pool. 

Richard Chapman Harris is equality, diversity and inclusion manager at Mott MacDonald. Stonewall’s conference ‘Building an Inclusive Environment’ will take place on Monday 30 November in London.


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