“LGBT people still get a raw deal.”

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Mercer’s UK & Ireland HR Director and Board Member, Dr Siobhan Martin, has made the Top 100 OUTstanding Leading LGBT+ Executives List for the fourth year running, this year making it into the Top 10. She was nominated for her continuous efforts around ensuring Mercer is an inclusive company and her activism for equal rights in the wider community. In this interview, she argues that in the fight for a fairer, more inclusive society everyone needs to step up and make their voice heard.

Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: Congratulations on making it into the Top 10! What does this result mean to you? 

Dr Siobhan Martin, Mercer’s Head of HR for UK & Ireland: Thank you! I’m feeling very proud for everyone at Mercer for this honour. It’s proof that cultural change is possible when everyone pulls together towards a common goal: fairness and care for every single person regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, faith or family background.

The list recognises leaders who have an impact both in their organisations and beyond. It’s always been incredibly important to me that as business leaders we spread our influence and attention beyond the workplace to effect change beyond our doorsteps.  

Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: What led you to become passionate about creating an inclusive environment for LGBT individuals in both the workplace and wider community?

Dr Siobhan Martin, Mercer’s Head of HR for UK & Ireland: LGBT people still get a raw deal. It’s been 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in parts of Britain. (Note all the qualifiers in that statement.)

Many people think that equality is sorted. Far from it. Without an equal footing for everyone we won’t make change on other important organisational issues such as the gender pay gap and racial diversity in positions of power. It’s about ensuring fairness and respect for all. No one should be made to feel ‘less than’.

Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: Can you tell us about some of the key activities you are working on to achieve LGBT workplace inclusivity?

Dr Siobhan Martin, Mercer’s Head of HR for UK & Ireland: Promoting open dialogue is key. When things are left unsaid, undiscussed, unchallenged then they create false impressions and fear.

One of the very practical ways we bring this to light at Mercer is through our ‘Coming Out as an Ally’ events around the country to engage everyone in taking positive action and getting to a place of greater understanding.

At these events I interview a senior ally and discuss some of the seemingly undiscussables. One of our best moments was in Belfast where we were discussing what it means to be ‘queer’. Can you even say that word at work? What does being queer mean in a city of great faith and great division? We all learnt a lot and came that little bit closer.

We also host ‘Unbundling’ sessions to get to the heart of other important but sensitive topics. We’ve covered lesbians, trans* and LGBT families so far, aging is next.

Again, it’s the dialogue that’s key. What does it mean to be gender fluid? Why is it hurtful and intrusive to ask a lesbian or bi-sexual woman how she and her wife had their kids (but not their male counterparts)? What’s the impact on people’s careers of not being able to travel to the 72 countries where we do business in which homosexuality is outlawed?

“As we should all be learning from the recent revelations on sexual harassment in the workplace, what feels like not much when taken in isolation all adds up when repeated constantly. Little things make a huge difference.”

We reach out beyond Mercer and Marsh & McLennan companies too with our #InThisTogether Conference and Vanguard network, where we share ideas and good practices and challenge the status quo.

All matters of inclusivity at Mercer are discussed at Board level including sexual orientation and gender identity. Every International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia (IDAHoT), the Board and Senior Executives spend the day in the reception of our London office welcoming colleagues and visitors, signing up allies, discussing issues and raising awareness.

Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: LGBT individuals can be at a higher risk of experiencing mental health problems than the wider population. Why is this, and is adequate support currently available to those affected?

Dr Siobhan Martin, Mercer’s Head of HR for UK & Ireland: The figures for hate crimes in modern workplaces are startling. One in five lesbian, gay and bi employees have experienced verbal bullying from colleagues, customers or service users because of their sexual orientation in the past five years.

A quarter of the world’s population believes that being LGBT should be a crime. Nearly half of trans people are not living permanently in their preferred gender role, prevented from doing so because they fear it might threaten their employment.

The toll of all this is immense and can lead to poor health outcomes. Numerous studies have shown us for example that bisexual people are prone to higher rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide.

There are excellent groups who can help. Make your people aware of them and help fund their vital work. Have a mental health awareness campaign for all employees and make reference to LGBT issues.

Business in the Community have just released an excellent mental health survey report, which you can use as a starting point. You can tie in the information from the following resources when communicating your organisational benefits:

Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: What would you say are the main obstacles getting in the way of achieving diversity and inclusivity at work?

Dr Siobhan Martin, Mercer’s Head of HR for UK & Ireland: One of the main obstacles is being blind to the problem, or not believing it is impactful enough to warrant attention. As we should all be learning from the recent revelations on sexual harassment in the workplace, what feels like not much when taken in isolation all adds up when repeated constantly. Little things make a huge difference.

So be aware, know what it really feels like to work in your organisation and make that voice heard for change, whether it’s about gender bias, age discrimination, racial equality or sexual orientation. This is a conversation for everyone, not any one group alone. It makes life better for all of us.

Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: With Trump’s recent transphobic policies in the US, are you concerned that we’ve taken a step backwards with trans equality?

Dr Siobhan Martin, Mercer’s Head of HR for UK & Ireland: The record speaks dreadfully for itself on this point, but absolutely predates Trump. Let’s not forget the voting record of Vice-President Pence and the transphobic ‘bathroom laws’ in states such as Virginia.

Then look to the years of deep divisions in my home country Australia over marriage equality. Remember that as forward thinking as we believe ourselves to be, marriage equality does not exist in all parts of the UK.  

If you hear or see something that doesn’t sit with your values then speak up.

Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: While transgender people may share overlapping issues to LGB cis-individuals, they also face greater stigmatisation and marginalisation by society, and have distinct needs that need to be addressed. How can this be tackled?

Dr Siobhan Martin, Mercer’s Head of HR for UK & Ireland: Visibility, education and understanding with a no bystanders culture are all crucial. If you hear or see something that doesn’t sit with your values then speak up. We use the ‘genderbread’ person to help encourage understanding. Use the resources available from Stonewall through their excellent campaign. I’d encourage organisations to consider the additional health needs of your trans colleagues and review your medical benefits.

Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: Finally, what key pieces of advice would you give to HR professionals who are seeking to make their own company more welcoming to, and supportive of, LGBT people?

Dr Siobhan Martin, Mercer’s Head of HR for UK & Ireland: Make the issues visible from the top down, understand what your people really think and worry about, then open up lines of safe discussion and enquiry.

Consider your culture in an honest way. What is really going on and what does it say about us all?

Power up your allies. 95+% of your workforce probably falls into this category so get them working for you. Allies shouldn’t just be people who like to come to the LGBT parties (as fun as they are!).

Little things can mean a lot. Review all of your policies and check for gendered language (what does your dress policy say for example?) and ensure that same-sex[***] couples are covered, for example in your pension plan documents, in shared parental leave policies, when you’re advertising your employees assistance programme and so on.

Measure your culture, make sure your Board is discussing it and set targets around other areas of equality. Ask people to self-report their sexual orientation and gender identity and track candidates through the recruitment process. Then you’ll have a much better handle on what’s going on and be better placed to make change.

Stand up and be counted, even when it’s hard. In fact, particularly when it’s hard.


About Becky Norman

Becky Norman

Becky is Editor of HRZone and Trainingzone, global online communities of people working in the HR and L&D industries. Becky works closely with leading HR and L&D practitioners and decision makers to ensure the publications offer a rich source of real-world insight and fresh advice to their audience.

HR and L&D professionals today must adapt to a complex mix of challenges caused by ongoing business disruption, technological advancements, a changing political landscape, varied employee needs and more. Becky aspires to make HRZone and TrainingZone the destinations for professionals to seek guidance, analysis and opinion on how to tackle these challenges and continue to deliver value.


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