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Workers let go of LGBT taboo

Sexual orientation and gender identity have long been regarded as sensitive subjects in Hong Kong. The attitudes towards, and experiences of, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals are not widely understood. That is why a recent study is attempting to advance the dialogue on the subject, particularly as it clearly relates to the workplace.

The Hong Kong LGBT Climate Study 2011-12, released by non-profit organisation Community Business, examined both the general attitudes of Hong Kong workers towards the subject of LGBT, and the experiences of LGBT employees themselves.

The research is based on findings from two surveys, both conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme between November 2011 and January 2012. The first was a representative survey of Hong Kong’s working population, with a sample size of 1,002 respondents, while the second was a focus survey of LGBT employees currently working or seeking jobs in Hong Kong, with a sample size of 626 respondents.

Key findings show that although the subject of sexual orientation and gender identity have long been regarded as taboo, there are signs that Hong Kong people are more accepting of LGBT individuals than has previously been assumed. Some 58 per cent of respondents said they were accepting of LGBT individuals, compared to 22 per cent who said the opposite.

Most Hong Kong workers find employment practices that discriminate against LGBT employees unacceptable. Of note, more than 80 per cent said it is unacceptable to exclude an LGBT individual from social events or deny them a promotion.

There continues to be, however, a small but significant minority that accepts discriminatory practices. Some 30 per cent of respondents found it acceptable not to give LGBT individuals customer-facing roles. A further 25 per cent said it is acceptable not to offer jobs to LGBT individuals. This is evidence that certain discriminatory practices are not only tolerated but seen as acceptable by many, and are likely taking place in Hong Kong’s workplaces.

The findings also show that 60 per cent of LGBT employees are not open about their sexual orientation and gender identity at work. They do not feel safe enough to bring their “real selves” to work, choosing instead to confide only in close friends at work whom they can trust. This, however, can impact workplace relationships, affect employee engagement and retention rates, and impair productivity and performance.

As many as 53 per cent say that their well-being is affected “by having to pretend to be someone they are not”, while 51 per cent say they “waste energy worrying about others finding out about them being LGBT”.

International research provides further evidence of this. Stonewall, a UK-based LGBT rights organisation, found that concealing sexual orientation at work reduces productivity by up to 30 per cent.

Richard Seeley, regional head of Spectrum Asia at Barclays – who sponsored the Hong Kong LGBT Climate Study 2011-12 – says the negative impact of not having an inclusive workplace can be huge.

“We assume 10 per cent of our population is likely to be LGBT,” Seeley says. “In an organisation such as Barclays, which has 150,000 employees globally, that equates to 15,000 people. If, like the study suggests, a non-inclusive environment reduces productivity by 30 per cent, that is the same as us employing 4,500 people every day who don’t come to work.”

He says the conclusion of the study is that the corporate sector in Hong Kong must take a proactive and leading role in affecting efforts to foster LGBT-inclusive environments, in order to sustain their staff work performance and attract talent and clients.

“The best future talent is going to come from the Gen Y population. As we know, the Gen Y population demands that the organisations they work for are diverse, open and accepting.

That is part of the principles and philosophies of this generation,” Seeley says.

“At Barclays, by having a value system that promotes equality, diversity, openness and acceptance of the LGBT community, we create an environment where our clients are more inclined to do business with us.

“We have a number of employee networks representing different groups. All of these networks are in existence to help promote diversity, representing the needs of that particular segment of our population.”

“Importantly, each one of our employee networks is actually headed up by a member of our organisation’s executive committee – mostly senior people in the region and globally. This underlines senior management’s focus on diversity as a part of Barclays.”