Official Whitehall figures released in December 2005 say that 6% of the UK adult population, or about 3 million people, are lesbian, gay or bisexual.  A recent survey has found that whilst many homosexuals and bisexuals are open about their sexual orientation at the workplace, a large number are not open at all due to the fear of discrimination.  The survey, which was carried out by the National Institute for Working Life and which received responses from over 13,500 people, found that one in four homosexuals and bisexuals hide their sexuality at work and heterosexual talk is perceived by many as stressful as the male-female relationship is seen as normal and same-sex relationships as wrong.  The survey also found that lesbians and gay men are paid around 6% less than heterosexual colleagues, notwithstanding the introduction of legislation to prevent discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation.

The underlying problem is that while the legal framework may have changed (including the introduction of civil partnerships and changes giving same-sex partners similar access to pensions as enjoyed by married couples), there has not yet been a parallel shift in social attitudes. This  discrepancy highlights the difference in attitude in the workplace and society.  Despite the lengths some employers have gone to promoting diversity and tolerance, others simply turn a blind eye or actively encourage a workplace culture that makes it difficult for their lesbian and gay staff to be “out” at work for fear of falling victim to the office bullies or reaching a “pink stained glass ceiling”. For example, some gay employees have commented on how uncomfortable they find it with the City lap dancing culture which still exists in certain organisations.

A possibility is for companies to improve their workplace equality and diversity policies. For example, the company can focus on a culture of inclusiveness, rather than diversity which focuses on the differences of culture, age and sexual orientation. The key is to create an environment at work without being overly politically correct and without being patronising to gay employees.

So what is the law relating to homosexuality in the workplace?

The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003

  • First came into force on 1 December 2003;
  • There is no requirement to disclose one’s sexual orientation in order to claim protection;
  • Prohibits direct or indirect discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation;
  • Prohibits discrimination based on one’s perception of another person’s sexual orientation, whether the perception is right or wrong;
  • Prohibits discrimination against a person by reason of the sexual orientation of someone else, for example, a person who is discriminated against because they associate with gay friends;
  • Potentially unlimited compensation; and
  • If a person brings a complaint against their employer, and is subject to victimisation, this will be unlawful.

The recent case of Peter Lewis v HSBC highlights that gay discrimination cases are inherently newsworthy, and what with the recent clarification of the law regarding vicarious liability for harassment, bullying and discrimination on any grounds should be stamped out if employers wish to minimise risks of expensive claims and reputational damage.  Employers should ensure that they take a strong line in improving attitudes in the workplace towards diversity, otherwise they may find themselves shelling out more that just a few pink pounds!

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