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Selisse Berry: We can change the global gay workplace

US organization Out and Equal is holding a global gay workplace summit in London. We catch up with its founder, Selisse Berry

Selisse Berry: We can change the global gay workplace

Global workplace rights are increasingly on the LGBT agenda and are now being taken seriously in some of the world’s most powerful board meetings.

As Britain hosts World Pride this year, in London, Out and Equal, a San Francisco based organization has flown over it’s top campaigners and decision makers for a summit with business leaders on global lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workplace equality.

Gay Star News is media partner of the summit which is sponsored by IBM.

With the conference starting today, GSN caught up with Selisse Berry, Out and Equal’s founding executive director to find out more about her organization and how it hopes to improve the workplace for LGBT employers around the world.

In the US Out and Equal is very well known but people globally may not have heard of you, could you tell me more and explain why you started it?

I changed careers as a young adult to become a Presbyterian minister and I wasn’t able to get ordained as a lesbian. So I had a lot of passion about people doing what ever they wanted to do career wise, regardless of the sexual orientation or gender identity.

About that time I was hired to run a very small non-profit, LGBT diversity training organization and I started recognizing early on that if it was to be sustainable, we needed to go into business.

So I started bringing together people that were trying to organize around the workplace and eventually, after a couple of years, I got it off the ground and started Out and Equal and it’s become an independent non-profit organization.

Many of our constituents are global companies and so over the last five or six years they have been asking us more about how to expand policies and best practice globally. So we have gone from a San Francisco base to a national base and now we are really moving into an international space.

What it is about Out and Equal that makes you able to talk to very large companies and have an influence over them?

I think our sweet point is that we are very good at convening people. I feel that we don’t go in and say that we have all the right answers, this is what you need to do. We go in expecting respect and dignity for the LGBT community and then we gather people together, whether it is at events or a round table.

The last event we had in Dallas had over 2,700 from 1,000 companies from around the globe.

LGBT workplace policies and practices have changed a lot in the USA and Europe and elsewhere since you started. Do you feel attitudes have shifted too?

When I first started, it was much more of an uphill battle, people were interested in a conversation but not sure how to deal with the resistance.

Almost all Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policy, and more than two thirds include gender identity and more than half offer domestic partner benefits. So we started out with a handful in each of those categories and 15 year later it has improved dramatically in terms of the policy.

It continues to be an issue to change culture within the company but that too is changing. More and more people are out and companies are recognizing that this person is a great marketing person and just happen to be a lesbian or happen to be transgender. And that diffuses the negative energy that many people in our society and society around the world that people have grown up with.

We also make a lot of effort to help people move from just being supportive to really becoming an advocate for our community as a straight ally.

Do you find that people really see and believe that being good to LGBT staff is good for business?

I think that the argument about recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest, that is something that every company is committed to doing. The idea LGBT equality helps the bottom line of a company is an argument that we consistently make and it is true, but I don’t have a lot of data to back that up.

You pointed out earlier that companies are global and want to apply policy and imply good practice globally where possible. Do you think that companies have an ability to make a real difference in countries that aren’t that so well advanced on LGBT rights?

You know that is absolutely our goal. We help the company walk along the path towards true equality.

And one of the things that we encourage companies to do is to advocate beyond the walls and within the walls of the company, on behalf of the LGBT community.

Companies in the US have now signed on to the employment non-discrimination act, more and more companies are finally signing on to marriage equality. It’s still a difficult up hill battle as some companies don’t want to see themselves as an advocacy space, they are there to sell a product, to sell a service and they don’t want to alienate groups of people.

But at the same time I think because of the education they are getting around the equality on the LGBT community, our hope is that we will see more and more companies make a stand.

There are people who will attack companies for doing this kind of thing, for example One Million Moms. When that happens, how do you persuade companies to continue with this work?

Well especially at the beginning that is a conversation that we had a lot of times and Disney was a great example. People just went to Disney and said they were going to put on a Gay Day at Disney and there was a lot of resistance inside and outside of Disney and people were going to boycott Disney.

It didn’t hurt that there were very senior out gay and lesbian and a few transgender people within the company. And once Gay Day happened the amount of money spent on the day far exceeded the potential boycott that the religious right had threatened. So they realized that it was a no-brainer and that they were doing the right thing.

A number of companies have been threatened with boycotts and it really hasn’t had so much of a finical impact given the benefit they’ve had by just being supportive.

Is there such a thing as a perfect company or organization for you?

Certainly everybody has their issues and it is difficult to make sure that all the policies are consistent around the world.

I would say that IBM are doing it better than anybody. When we started bringing together senior executives, many companies that we were working with only had one out LGBT person. Now more and more companies now have people coming out at a senior level, but IBM has consistently had a number of out senior executives and have rolled out their policies worldwide.

A lot of new companies, tech companies especially, say ‘of course we treat everybody fine, we don’t need those policies’. And we tell them that it is good business practice to have those policies in place.

Not all of this costs lots of money. But have you noticed the work being harder given the state of the US economy and the global economy over the last few years?

We peaked in our sponsorship in 2008 and then we saw a huge drop in 2009 and have been building it up again. Some companies have said for us to call them in a couple of years but a lot of relationships we have built up over the last 10 or 15 years want to support us. And every year we bring in new people.

You are having your first conference in the UK. Is there anything the US and UK can learn from each other?

I think the UK and the EU are so much further advanced than the United States from a government perspective around non-discrimination. There are efforts being made form the governments that we just don’t have. In the US there is no employment non-discrimination act, there is nothing on a federal level to protect the LGBT community, so there are lots of things that we can learn from and would love to transport to the US.

In term of what the US has… Well when I was in Spain you can be legally married, but the majority of people aren’t out at work. They consistently say that people just don’t talk about their lives at work. Because we, in the US, don’t have that federal protection there are a lot of companies talking that role to protect their LGBT employee.

Most companies we work with have an employment group for the LGBT people so that there is a way that they can communicate with each and meet on a regular basis. We don’t see this in a lot of European companies.

When employees have to spend so much time in hiding who they are, then they can’t put that time into their job and advancing their career. Which is the number one reason why it’s good to create a friendly LGBT workplace, for people to be out and not have to hide and change pronouns when talking about their weekend.

You mentioned Spain and marriage. You must do a lot of work on staff benefits and, therefore around partners of lesbian and gay staff. Would it simplify things for you if the US just went ahead and legalized gay marriage?

Yes it would on so many levels. For a human resources professional and people that are trying to come up with the policies and of course the policies would be different state by state, depending on whether they have marriage equality or domestic partners or civil unions or if they have nothing or DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act, banning same-sex marriage] in place.

If you go to a state like Massachusetts or Canada or some place that has marriage equality it really does diffuse the energy that people put into their hatred.

We talked about companies being perfect, are there sectors that you see in the US, perhaps media or manufacturing, that are behind other sectors?

We have sponsors from most sectors and industries. But most of our constituents are from large companies and there are still a lot of small and medium businesses that are all over the map on their progressive policies. And we aren’t large enough yet to have an impact there but eventually we will work in all kind of businesses.

This is the first foreign outing for Out and Equal. Is there anything else you want to come out of this first road trip?

So many companies come to us and say that many employees might be sent to a different part of the world, like India or China, or where their partner can’t go or where homosexuality is illegal.

They are asking us to help them navigate through those waters and we are bringing together a global advisory committee of experts on the global business front, to help us understand and how to share those best practices with the companies.

So it’s about expanding that conversation and educating our colleagues that there are 78 countries where homosexuality is still illegal and people can be punished by death. And helping them get to the point where they just think, ‘No we aren’t going to be doing business in certain countries until certain policies change’. I think those are the primary outcomes we want to see out of our global endeavors.

Maybe it’s a bit early to say but do you think you will repeat coming to London?

We said because World Pride 2012 is happening in London Out and Equal should be the nonprofit organization that should take on the business forum. So part of our on going conversation, that we are having with our staff and board, is should the next international O&E forum be at World Pride Toronto or someplace like India or China where there is a need for O&E to have a presence.

And is there anything you are personally looking forward to in London?

I’m a big Anglophile, I love all things British and I always queue up for half price tickets for the wonderful theatre shows there. So I hope my wife and I can do some fun things to do when we are there.

Alongside IBM and, of course, Gay Star News, Out and Equal Global LGBT Workplace Summit is also supported by Accenture, Citi, Lilly, The Walt Disney Company, British Airways, Deutsche Bank, Advocate, Ernst & Young and Microsoft.

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