By Gloria Lombardi

OriDiversity and inclusion are the nuclei of success for any business. But in a world that still too often returns to stereotypes, biases, and prejudice, building an inclusive workplace is especially challenging. Ori Chandler (pictured right), Managing Director at OUTstanding, knows this better than most. OUTstanding is a membership organisation for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) business leaders and allies. It is also known for inspiring companies through their Top OUTstanding list of leading LGBT+ Executives & Allies, and Future Leaders, which is published annually in a Financial Times special report on Executive Diversity. Chandler’s mandate is to help firms create an environment where LGBT+ employees can succeed and, as she says, “are not held back in anyway”.

In this interview, Chandler describes what an inclusive organisation looks like, the benefits and challenges of an inclusive workplace, and the role of leadership in setting the tone. She also shares her advice on how to start building a more diverse organisation and why it matters to the business.

Gloria Lombardi: What does it mean to be an inclusive workplace?

Ori Chandler: An inclusive workplace is a workplace that values individual and group differences. It’s an environment where everybody feels accepted; where diversity is celebrated and people are encouraged to think differently. Inclusive workplaces promote fairness, equality and parity. All voices are heard, new ideas are actively encouraged and it’s acceptable to think or behave in ways that are outside of the traditional norm.

GL: How does an inclusive workplace impact the business?

outstandingOC: There are huge benefits for your business. First and foremost, it will help you build a strong talent pipeline. There’s a lot of research out there indicating that millennials value inclusive cultures. Demonstrating your inclusive practices is essential if you want to attract and hire the best people. We also know that inclusion boosts retention too; individuals who are in the closet are 70% more likely to leave a firm within the first three years. If businesses don’t get this right, there’s a real risk of losing their talent.

Diversity of people breeds diversity of thought, which is essential for innovation. There is a lot of talk at the moment about the need for businesses to ‘disrupt’ and ‘innovate’ in order to stay ahead in today’s competitive market. To do this, businesses must ensure that they create an environment where new ideas or approaches can flourish.

We also know that individuals who feel included are much more motivated and productive. In fact, statistics suggest that individuals who are ‘out’, authentic and accepted are up to a third more productive! This has colossal benefits, both for the individual (who is able to do and achieve more), as well as the business as a whole. This also impacts the profitability of the organisation. Research published earlier this year by Credit Suisse suggested that LGBT+ inclusive firms tend to be up to 12% more profitable overall, which makes a compelling economic case.

I think the other thing to remember is that a diverse workforce will be much more reflective of society as a whole. This means that businesses can understand their customers or market much better, which in turn, positively impacts performance and brand. Consumers seem to be increasingly motivated by social or environmental claims. Recent consumer polling by Google found that people under 24 were almost 50% more likely to choose a brand after seeing an equality themed advertisement.

GL: Based on what you see at OUTstanding, what are the main barriers to creating an inclusive organisation?

OS-7Sept2016-6264OC: There is a lot of structural bias within the current system. Historically, from an LGBT+ perspective, there has been a lot of stigma around being ‘out’ in the workplace. And this is still apparent today. You have to remember that there are over 70 countries across the globe where it’s illegal to be gay. This makes the topic a real taboo. People live in fear of being authentic – not just in the workplace – but in wider society too. This international agenda is still very much evolving and there’s a lot more work to do.

Here in the UK, there is a fundamental lack of diverse role models within business. The executive suite is still dominated by white, heterosexual businessmen. Women are underrepresented, particularly in leadership roles. There are few ‘out’ and visible LGBT+ leaders as well as few black or minority ethnic representatives in the boardroom.

At OUTstanding, we try to challenge this status quo by proving that you can be who you want to be and achieve the things that you want to achieve. Our Top100 lists in the Financial Times showcase and celebrate positive LGBT+ and ally leaders, who are out, proud and actively supporting LGBT+ rights. These leaders are all incredibly influential and successful, real ‘heavy weights’ in business terms.

There are also real issues with hiring practices today. It’s typically unconscious, but it’s quite common practice for managers to recruit or promote individuals like themselves… Individuals they identify with, who act or behave like themselves, or who look or think the same way. This poses a real barrier to harnessing diverse talent. For example, we know that it’s much harder for people with non-white sounding names to secure interviews. On the positive side, businesses are increasingly trying to combat unconscious bias in the hiring process by doing ‘name-blind recruitment’ which is encouraging.

GL: What should organisations do to start building an inclusive workplace?

OC: It needs to start from the top. Leaders must set the tone and set the culture of an organisation. If they set a strong example and live and breathe inclusive practices, then these will be felt at all levels of an organisation.

GL: What does it mean for a leader to be inclusive?

OSGala-web-271016-8698OC: Ultimately, inclusive leadership is about understanding and valuing the uniqueness of others – whilst, at the same time, ensuring everyone feels included.

How do leaders demonstrate this? There are lots of ways, but communication is really important. Leaders have to be visible and outspoken in their support. They need to talk openly about diversity and inclusion – about the LGBT+ community, women, or black and minority ethnic communities. Leaders must adopt inclusive language and be quite proactive in using it. When a CEO openly shares support for the LGBT+ community and says that ‘everyone will be accepted, respected and celebrated,’ this sends an incredibly powerful message to the rest of the organisation. Any LGBT+ employees hearing this will think, ‘If the CEO says that it is OK, then of course I can be out, I can be myself’.

GL: Based on your work with various firms as well as the Top OUTstanding lists, could you give me some examples of organisations that were able to challenge the perceptions inside their workplaces making them more inclusive as a result?

OC: Particular firms that have performed well over and over again in the lists are Dow Chemical, EY, and Aviva. They have leaders who are setting the tone and driving inclusive cultures all over the world. Not just in the UK or in the United States, but globally. That is hugely powerful, particularly in countries where anti-LGBT+ legislation still exists.

These leaders are raising awareness and getting more people involved by catalysing support from other organisations. It’s great to see firms looking outside their immediate workforce, setting expectations for clients and suppliers and encouraging them to adopt inclusive practices.

GL: What else do organisations need to bridge the diversity gap?

22Nov2016-8976OC: Organisations need to have a strong infrastructure in place to support their minority communities. That, of course, requires having a good, solid, and robust D&I policies. But policy alone is not sufficient; culture does not depend entirely on policy. Business also needs to ensure that its internal workforce is appropriately supported, and that employees, particularly from minority groups, have the chance to build confidence, capability and to flourish within their workplace. Companies are increasingly offering access to support networks or resource groups, training and development opportunities, and mentoring, which is really important.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of businesses and sectors that are still behind the curve. They assume they don’t have an issue because they ‘don’t hear any complaints’ or because they ‘don’t really have any LGBT+ people’ or if they do, that these people ‘simply don’t want to be out.’ These businesses need to remember that it is very difficult for an individual who might be in the closet (or who does not feel included) to speak out. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the firm to take action and be proactive in fostering inclusive practices and an inclusive culture.