Ruth Davidson: How secrets about sexuality damage the economy

Ensuring staff don't feel the need to be secretive about their sex lives can help companies' profits, writes Ruth Davidson.

Pride Edinburgh marks 21 years since the festival started (Picture: Steven Scott Taylor)

People perform better when they can be themselves.

It doesn’t sound too controversial and seems to make a lot of sense. But every year, thousands of Scots choose to hide a big part of themselves from their workmates. Sometimes it’s out of fear or mistrust, sometimes it’s to protect privacy and sometimes because an overheard conversation means they worry they’ll be treated differently or their career prospects could be hampered by speaking up.

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Last year, a survey found that a quarter of LGBT people had not come out to their colleagues and an astonishing six out of ten openly gay graduates decide to hide their sexuality when they join the world of work.

Think of how much effort must be involved in remembering to always talk about your partner in gender non-specific terms or ensuring you join in office banter about how hot the latest celebrity is, or having to cover up your weekend plans so people don’t find out something about you that you’re keeping from them. Individually, none of these sound like big issues. But think about having to do that in every conversation, every day, every week, every year.

It can result in people being withdrawn at work and not fully part of the team.

People have had protection under the law from discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, disability, gender or sexuality for years. But the law is a blunt tool when it comes to how open, friendly or welcoming a workplace environment is.

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That’s why CBI Scotland – along with member organisations – has launched an LGBT Network to promote diversity and demonstrate the value of inclusive workplaces to the wider business community. CBI’s director in Scotland, Tracey Black, says it’s in firms’ own interests to create workplaces that help all employees to perform at their best – and has called on Scotland’s business leaders to step up. “While it’s the right thing to do, we also know that there’s a positive business case for taking action – with more diverse companies outperforming their rivals. There’s really no excuse for businesses not doing more to promote inclusion.”

Tonight, CBI Scotland is driving that message home with partners Standard Life Aberdeen and Scottish Power at an event in the capital that’s designed to show that when people are treated equally, they are happier and more productive at work. Or as Jan Gooding, chair of LGBT charity Stonewall and brand director at Aviva, says: “This is about good old-fashioned productivity. Evidence shows people work better when they’re themselves, for the simple reason that otherwise you’re expending energy on hiding your true identity.”

Other business leaders agree. Last year, the chief executive of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Monique Villa, concluded that more diverse companies are more successful than less diverse ones with benefits including greater staff retention and increased profits.

“Diversity is key to what we do. If you want an A-team you need people who bring different experiences and views to the table,” she said.

In the intensely competitive market for the best staff, employees have choices. Supportive environments are increasingly valued by all staff. Employees don’t want to be associated with overt or covert discrimination. The same goes for customers.

That’s why companies take time to enter into workplace indices – like the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index – increasing their commitment to equality at work, but also as a marketing tool to attract the brightest and best.

Incidentally, the Welsh Assembly tops the table as the best employer for LGBT staff. The Scottish Parliament doesn’t feature as it chooses not to take part – perhaps something Holyrood bosses could think about to demonstrate how good a place it is we work in? I believe we are going through a remarkable period of social change in Britain, and right across the world, where the unthinkable has, in the space of a few short years, become the unremarkable.

I am delighted to be helping launch the CBI’s network programme tonight and applaud so many of its members for signing up and taking part.

As firms across the country look to tackle Scotland’s productivity gap, it is important they look to the individuals who work for them as well as to the whole.

If more employees are happy, settled and focussed at their work, the whole company benefits. Equality is the law – making sure people feel equally valued is a harder nut to crack. But those firms who get it right won’t just be delivering a societal good, they’ll be helping their bottom line as well.