The introduction of the civil partnership bill will extend rights to the same status as married couples. Proactive organisations will be seen as good employers. Organisations are advised to check benefits to make sure they comply, says Jenny Keefe
Case Study: British Library
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Just five years ago the Royal Navy was still sacking people on the grounds of their sexuality, now it recruits in the gay media. And once the preserve of the white, middle-class and pinstriped, investment banks sponsor gay events and have networking groups aimed at gay, lesbian and bisexual staff.
To put it another way, the times they are-a-changing. So treating staff less favourably because of their sexuality can be bad for business, wreck your image and land you in court. Benefits are at the heart of the debate: if you offer perks for opposite, but not same-sex, partners, you could be excluding some of your brightest staff from your package. Stephen Frost, programme manager of Diversity Champions at pressure group Stonewall, works with organisations such as IBM, Barclays and the Royal Navy to encourage diversity and tackle discrimination. “If you are going to offer perks to staff because you want to treat them well, it seems rather odd to exclude a minority of your workforce who happen to be gay from those same benefits.
While you can put forward an argument in terms of savings, the message you send out is incredibly negative. “We would be looking for an employer to make sure that if they offer partners, for example, medical coverage, that is also available to employees with same-sex partners. We’d expect the same in terms of bereavement leave, life insurance, relocation and travel benefits, maternity leave, paternity leave and, of course, the big one: pensions.”
Employers that go above and beyond can score a coveted place in Stonewall’s Corporate Equality Index, a survey which ranks the UK’s most gay-friendly employers according to criteria such as whether they offer benefits equally and if they have gay board members. Just seven-out-of-ten employers, however, provide same-sex partners with the same benefits as unmarried heterosexual partners, according to the December 2004 Sexual orientation and religion survey by the Equal Opportunities Review.
Adam Turner, an employment lawyer at law firm Lovells, says this is a discrimination case waiting to happen. Under the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003, employers must make sure that any benefits offered to unmarried heterosexual partners are available to same-sex partners. While cases bought under the 2003 regulations have not yet touched on benefits, “this is exactly the sort of thing people bring complaints about,” he adds. There is one big exception to this rule. “If the benefits the employer provides specify married partners or a spouse, then it is not discriminatory,” says Turner.
Employers had best not get too comfortable though. The civil partnership bill, expected to come into effect by the end of this year, will allow same-sex couples to register their relationships. Under the legislation, gay couples who have a civil partnership will be entitled to the same benefits, including pension rights, as married people. “Employers need to be ready to make sure that any employee who rocks up and says ‘I have a civil partnership’ isn’t treated less favourably. Pension schemes will have to provide survivor pensions not only to married couples, but couples who have entered into a civil partnership will as well,” warns Turner.
Internal bodies for gay, lesbian and bisexual staff, such as Citigroup’s Citipride or UBS’s Gay@UBS can raise issues before they end up at a tribunal. “Groups where these sort of sexual orientation issues can be raised, discussed and addressed is certainly an acceptable way of trying to settle things informally. Practically speaking though, I think you will find these more in large organisations,” he says. Lobby groups recommend that employers come out with more than the bare minimum.
“Sure there’s a legal obligation to treat people more equally in the workplace, but what we are increasingly finding is that organisations are going beyond that to get a competitive advantage. If you are perceived to be proactive in this area you send the right message, not only to gay staff but also women, minorities and other people who see how an organisation treats its gay people as a litmus test for how it treats all its people,” says Frost. Three years ago, Steven Walters, employee relations manager at Metrolink, the firm that runs Manchester’s tram system, embarked on a mission to encourage more gay workers to apply for work. Although the firm doesn’t ask employees about their sexuality, Walters says the initiative has been a success. “Our department has very strong views on trying to make the world a fair place for everyone.
It also means you don’t miss out on all the different views and outlooks, and are more attractive to more people.” He adds that a diverse workforce not only reflects customers’ different backgrounds, but can improve productivity. Metrolink sponsors a float at Manchester Pride, a gay, lesbian and bisexual festival, and all same-sex partners are entitled to travel passes and are included in team social events. So how can you make sure your perks appeal to gay staff? Andrew Davenport, an associate at solicitors Simmons & Simmons, says good intentions can go to waste if employers don’t pay attention to detail. “If they haven’t already, then employers should review their benefits and the policies that go with them, to see if there are any which are limited to staff with opposite sex partners. “Also, when employers review their policies, they are also well advised to look at the wording – if the intention is to provide benefits to all partners regardless of their sex, then you have to use the word partner rather than spouse.”
Employers should consult with staff and communicate if they decide to change policies,” says Davenport. Staff should also be kept up to speed. “If people haven’t provided benefits to same-sex partners before, you need to train those people who are responsible for administering benefits to make sure that they are aware of their legal obligations and use the appropriate language.” Then there is the issue of confidentiality. “Somebody might know that someone is gay because they administer their health insurance, but it’s confidential information and should be treated accordingly,” he adds. While the world of work is gradually becoming more equal, times are not changing fast enough. The Equal Opportunities Review’s report showed that just 50% of employers have carried out training on the Sexual Orientation regulations.
Only 9% of respondents said they ask about employees about sexual orientation in an equal opportunities questionnaire, although arbitration service Acas says this is good practice. Lovells’ Turner predicts that the new regulations will do more than coerce people into compliance. “One of the big things behind this legislation is to try and encourage a change in the way people think. It would be unspeakable now to say women can’t be journalists, lawyers or prime ministers and the sex discrimination legislation that was introduced thirty years ago had a big part to play in influencing people’s thinking.”
Case Study: British Library
Employers which want to review their diversity policies should take a leaf out of the British Library’s book. Any benefits provided to heterosexual partners are also offered to same-sex partners – including survivor pensions. Sheila Hosangady, diversity manager, says: “Valuing diversity means we can attract the best people from the widest talent pool.
One of the best ways to appeal to a wide audience is to reflect the community it serves.” The library’s employee assistance programme is open to family members, including same-sex partners; maternity, paternity and adoptive leave is offered to gay couples. “We keep up with good practice guidance from [the likes of] Stonewall and include views from lesbian, gay and bisexual [union] committees.”