Suki Sandhu: "We can achieve true board diversity in the next ten years"

Written by
Mary Appleton

23 Dec 2016

23 Dec 2016 • by Mary Appleton

How inclusive are businesses today?

Since launching OUTstanding three years ago, we’ve seen real progress: the Marriage (Same Sex) Act was passed in the UK in 2013 and the Marriage Act in Ireland in 2015. Such legislation has a positive impact on businesses and how they help their LGBT+ employees.

As our lists are published in the FT, they have become influential within the international business world. Global businesses are increasingly engaging and trying to support their LGBT+ staff in international regions with any anti-LGBT+ legislation. We help our members by sharing best practice, driving solutions and seeing how corporations can work together to make a difference.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the readiness of leaders to accept that openness about sexuality at work is not only beneficial for employees but also for business. We hear countless ‘coming out’ stories from people who can truly be themselves at work and in every aspect of their lives, which is not only heart-warming, but reinforces the need to champion LGBT+ career success. Many senior ally leaders still need vital support to foster truly inclusive environments. It’s our role to drive conversations that lead to positive action. More and more ally programmes are being launched by businesses internally so people can support their LGBT+ colleagues.

What would you like to see in the future?

I would be thrilled to see the boards of our top companies reflect the societies they serve more accurately, and I think that we can achieve this in the next ten years. Diverse businesses outperform their competitors by up to 35%, and reports show that LGBT+ workers who are open about their gender or sexuality to all colleagues are 32% more productive. I want businesses to open their eyes to these facts and establish powerful diversity initiatives. I would like to think that I’ll be out of a job in ten years’ time because initiatives such as OUTstanding will no longer be needed to champion inclusion.

Which companies are leading this?

PayPal’s brave move to cancel expansion plans in light of North Carolina’s anti-transgender laws is worthy of applause. There have been 200 anti-LGBT+ bills introduced this year in the US alone, and business support is crucial. LGBT+ people around the world are losing rights at work and in every aspect of their lives, and the only way to help them is by working together.

There are positive examples: thousands of Apple employees marching in San Francisco’s Pride parade in 2014; 60 US investors and 200 businesses calling for North Carolina to repeal anti-LGBT+ law. A new specialist insurer, Emerald Life, launched in March 2016 and has committed to funding Stonewall’s Role Models programme. But we still have a way to go.

How can leaders ensure talent pipelines are truly inclusive?

More than a third (34%) of respondents to a poll of the OUTstanding member base last year said there is a need for more openly LGBT+ executive role models and mentoring opportunities for LGBT+ employees. Greater boardroom diversity would also give junior employees the confidence to smash through the ‘glass closet’ and a number of businesses are already adopting a proactive approach. Our members highlighted IBM, Google and Barclays as organisations they admire for encouraging LGBT+ diversity.

Inclusive work environments allow companies to retain diverse talent and foster productive, innovative environments. We need more corporate bodies and more LGBT+ and ally executives to encourage professionals at all levels to be authentic leaders. Businesses are missing out on incredible benefits, despite senior talent pools being full of excellent, diverse candidates.

I suggest reaching out to your CEO and gaining their support on advancing the diversity and inclusion strategy. When CEOs set the tone from the top, it can create a monumental step forward.

Creating an allies network is hugely important. The most inclusive company cultures can be formed with the support of allies. Incorporate training around use of inclusive language and avoiding unconscious bias, to ensure managers are fully aware of potential issues, equipped to deal with them and not afraid to speak out.

What is your advice on discussing sexuality at work?

The perception remains that it’s safer for young professionals to stay in the closet if they want to achieve at work: 62% of previously ‘out’ university students go back into the closet when they enter the workforce. I waited until I had established myself because I feared it would affect my career; I don’t want other young people held back. The growing visibility of diverse leaders presents opportunities: look for a role model who reflects your background and aspirations, and use them as a pillar of strength and inspiration.

Coming out is incredibly personal. It’s important to confide in someone you trust and to take baby steps. We’re coming out every day as an LGBT+ person, through conversations with colleagues and people around us. With every person you tell, it gets easier, until it becomes totally normal.

It’s vital that those in leadership positions use their influence to communicate that through being authentic at work, professionals will be more confident, perform better and boost the bottom line. The more LGBT+ people who live openly, the better for businesses, individuals and society as a whole.