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How the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index decides which are the best employers for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff in Britain
The Stonewall Workplace Equality Index keeps up with the times for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff.
Photo by Scott Nunn.

Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index is not only the main way Britain’s top employers can rate their progress on gay staff issues, it’s also a model for similar indexes around the world.

Any company can enter the index and the best 100 get publicized in order of how good an employer they are for the lesbian, gay and bisexual workers.

The latest index was out earlier this month and scored Ernst & Young at the top. But how does the process work and how does Stonewall, the UK’s leading gay rights organization, ensure that it delivers real benefit for employees?

We asked James Lawrence from Stonewall to give us the low-down.

What is the WEI and how does it benefit lesbian, gay and bisexual employees?

The index is a definitive benchmarking exercise for employers looking specifically how they develop, support, recruit and look after lesbian, gay and bisexual members of staff.

It uses a list of eight different criteria. It’s free to enter and any employer can submit an entry. It is essentially a list of 24 questions which range from employee engagement to whether they have a supplier policy.

It benchmarks where employers are. It also through the supplier policy [which asks employers to measure how gay-friendly their suppliers are] helps to make inroads for LGB people who aren’t necessarily working for the employer.

What kind of research do you have to do to score the employers?

You have the initial self-assessment 24 questions. You have also got to supply documentary evidence for everything you say or you won’t get any score for it.

Then there’s the staff-satisfaction survey. We brought it in three years ago and it’s a very useful tool for making certain lesbian, gay and bisexual staff at the coal-face have the employment experience that the employer says they are having. Responses to the survey don’t come back to the employer, they go straight to Stonewall. This year we had over 7,500 staff responding.

Actually that survey confirms staff satisfaction is highest among those employers who are performing well in other areas of the index.

But it also throws up some surprises. For example when you break down the levels of confidence among staff about being open about their sexuality it is dramatically different between lesbian and gay staff and bi staff. We’ve discovered that 7% of gay men and lesbians aren’t out at work but 50% of bisexual people aren’t. And there’s also a big difference between men and women, 46% of bisexual women aren’t out at work but it’s 58% for bi men. It is astounding. I would have anticipated some difference but never so much.

The final stage is random spot-checks to a sample of participating employers which is just to make certain everything is as it should be. You know they have the basic policies down pat but the spot checks help the index remain as robust as it can.

An independent external auditor goes along to the employer and interviews the person who completed the index. They talk with the senior management and meet with lesbian gay and bisexual members of staff and check with them.

What areas are organisations most successful in and where do they most commonly fall down?

It really varies from employer to employer. It is not really even about sector. If you look at broadcasters for example, most people would assume that all broadcasters are in the top 100 because they have a lot of gay staff but only one of them ever has been. They mistake having out gay staff as being a diverse employer. The challenge is get that understanding across to some of the staff.

There are no construction firms in the top 100 and they may say they have no gay people working for them. And one of the challenges for us is getting the message to them that a diverse workplace helps people be themselves and perform their best.

As another example when you are looking at things like employee network groups they are at different stages. Some will only have just set them up. Others will be allowing the group to be consulted on new policies which effect their staff. That’s where you start to see a difference.

How have you made it tougher this year?

We refresh the index every three years and make sure we update it to make sure it is representative of what’s happening in the workplace. This year we added a global criteria which makes sure that employers who have staff oversees are being inclusive there.

Has anyone scored 100%?

No-one will ever score 100% because it aims at constant continuous improvement. Some score very highly but things like the staff feedback survey can be brought in to make a separation between the top scorers so everyone gets ranked properly.

IBM is the only employer to have topped the index twice but they didn’t do it two consecutive years. For all employers if you don’t keep abreast of the changes or you say you are happy we have reached a certain level you are not necessarily going to perform very well the next year. While it is refreshed every three years, the index is tweaked in the intervening years so you can’t just copy and paste your answers from last year and expect the same score.

If you don’t challenge yourself it doesn’t mean everyone else isn’t. The standards will automatically go up so what you may think is a good standard may not be enough.

Most of the employers in the top 100 are big, wealthy corporates or large government departments. Do you need lots of money to do this well?

It is quite rigorous but they do it because they understand the business case so the investment they put in, which is mostly in staff time, they will get back in terms of performance of their lesbian, gay and bisexual staff.

It’s not so much about money, what you really do need engagement at all levels. You need senior management in place who are keen to lead from the top. When you look at the people performing well you have so much top-level buy in, including straight allies at the top of the organization, that’s what the key is. You do need to have someone who is passionate about it and can dedicate the time to it but you will get that back in terms of your staff being happier and performing better.

How does this fit in to the other work Stonewall does around workplaces?

Essentially it is an activity that we do that any employer can participate in. The workplace conference and Diversity Champions programme are paid for. But the Workplace Equality Index is absolutely free and you’ll still get a score to help you see how you are progressing.

This year 98 of the top 100 are members of the Diversity Champions. If you are a member of the programme you are far more likely to be engaged and to be doing the work. If a non-member is thinking should I enter then absolutely they should as it’s a really good benchmarking exercise.

If you don’t make the top 100 you can look at the case studies and see what other employers are doing to get a better score. If you never enter you will never know where you are starting from in order to know where you need to get to. It is about very practical, good outcomes for gay staff across Britain.

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