A look at how ThoughtWorks supports LGBTQ employees – a lesson on inclusion

Employee engagement and how to get it right has long been a concern of employers of all stripes in order to boost staff motivation, loyalty, productivity, and, ultimately, retention rates and profitability.

But a core element of the concept from a worker’s point of view is feeling that they can be themselves in the workplace and be valued for who they are and what they do – particularly if they belong to a minority group that has long been subject to discrimination.

One company that takes such ideas seriously is software consultancy, ThoughtWorks. In fact, Amy Lynch, who took on the newly-created role of UK head of diversity and inclusion in July 2017 to broaden such activity out beyond its former focus on gender, believes such an approach is vital. This is because being representative of the communities that the firm serves enables “us to better service the needs of diverse groups of people”, she says:

We’ve always valued the importance of having lots of different people and views collaborating on building software…Everything we do is geared towards social justice. It’s a big part of what we do as an organisation. So when people are hired in, they understand we care about social and economic justice and tackling inequality. It’s part of our branding and our culture.

One area that the organisation has been active in, for example, is in supporting its lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) community. Based on a recent survey, this group comprises 13.5% of the company’s workforce (57% participation rate). A similar 2016 poll by Facebook revealed that 7% (61% participation rate) of its employees identified in this way, while the Office for National Statistics indicated that the figure in 2016 across the UK population as a whole was more like 2%.

As a result of its work in the area of sexual politics, ThoughtWorks has been listed in campaigning charity Stonewall’s Equality Index of 400 companies [http://www.stonewall.org.uk/workplace-equality-index] over the last four years, jumping 200 places in the last two alone.

Although the firm has yet to reach the top 100 list, the aim is to do so by 2020. Moreover, Lynch is particularly proud of receiving best marks for the staff survey element last year, which involves asking workers if their employers are putting their money where their mouth is in terms of support.

As for initiatives that have helped win favour, these include the use of gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘they’ rather than just ‘he’ or ‘she’ both in the workplace and at external events, and the introduction of gender-neutral toilets in the firm’s London and Manchester offices. Lynch explains:

Bringing gender-neutral pronouns into the organisation has been quite a recent thing for us, but they’ve now been included in our HR systems. In the past, people didn’t have the option of using any other pronouns than ‘he’ or she’ so we worked with our provider to add in options. So now the system is set up to work with however you identify and it’s made a big difference.

The same principle has been applied to reshaping internal policies and procedures. For example, ‘maternity’ and ‘paternity leave’ has now become ‘parental leave’, while the ‘mother and baby room’ has been renamed the ‘parent room’.

Recognising intersectionality

The idea, Lynch says, came from an internal group called InterTWined, which started off as a LGBTQ forum but has since broadened out to include around 30 people – out of a total UK headcount of 350 – from other underrepresented groups such as members of ethnic minorities as well as people with mental health issues or who are neuro-diverse. As she points out:

Language is such a key part of this kind of activity. Removing some of the gendered terms may seem like a relatively small change, but it’s made such a difference to individuals and has had a huge impact on people’s perceptions.

InterTWined members take part in a monthly conference call to discuss any issues, share their views and provide a forum for people to be heard – and again it was they who suggested introducing gender-neutral facilities when ThoughtWorks moved to new offices last year. The aim was not only to support people identifying as non-binary within the organisation, but also to provide a welcoming space for others involved with it as a result of outreach activities and events. Lynch says:

When we moved to our new office in Manchester, we already had an engaged group to ask ‘what do you feel should be included in this workspace?’ They said ‘it needs to be welcoming and generate a sense of belonging so we need gender-neutral toilets, a place for people to pray and access for wheelchairs’. So our internal group is important in helping to shape policies and to look internally at how we can do things differently.

To ensure new hires start out on the right foot, meanwhile, the company has also incorporated a session on inclusion into its induction programme over the last 12 months. Lynch explains:

The session is geared to what it means to work in an inclusive organisation so it’s a big education piece. It’s to help people get into the right mindset and so, for example, it includes information about gender because, if you identify as male or female, you may not realise that others don’t always relate that way. So we ask questions like ‘what would you do if you think someone’s walked into the wrong bathroom?’. And the answer is just to say ‘hello’. If people have made a mistake, they’ll leave quickly enough, but that also may not be the case. So it’s enabling people to be educated and informed and to have tips and tools on how to use that information effectively.

Over the year ahead, a further aim is to run an inclusion roadshow to bring existing employees up to speed on what the organisation is doing in this space. The roadshow, which will take place both at its offices and also at the various client sites where its consultants are based, will include not only the induction content, but also new material about mental health, wellbeing and unconscious bias too.

One thing that Lynch is clear about though is the importance of not pigeonholing people into diversity “silos” based on age, ethnicity, gender or anything else. She concludes:

In order to be inclusive, you need to recognise intersectionality. People rarely identify as just one thing and organisations need to be aware of that. Our experiences as individuals are not limited to one part of our characteristics, and our needs are complex as a result.

My take

Diversity in general, and gender diversity in particular, is high up the agenda of many tech companies as they seek to broaden out their talent pool and make their mark in the ongoing skills war.

But the real battleground is actually inclusion, which involves supporting members of minority groups to be proudly themselves without fear of prejudice or being made to feel like second-class citizens. In other words, it’s about creating an environment and culture in which people have a sense of belonging and have the space to be truly the best they can be.

Image credit – Image free for commercial use

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