Industry eye

Do contractors really need a gay and lesbian charter? Balfour Beatty certainly thinks so. It has just signed up to charity Stonewall's Diversity Champions programme which helps employers make their workplaces inclusive for gay, lesbian and bisexual staff.

Many of you reading this will be thinking – as I did – 'Do we really have a problem in construction?' We've no doubt come across people of different sexual orientation, treated them the same as anyone else and all merrily gone about our business.

However, the problem according to Stonewall is that many lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people feel that they can't be themselves at work. Polls show that a quarter of them are not at all open to colleagues about their sexual orientation.

This is how Matthew Flood, general counsel of Balfour Beatty's Support Services Division, the group's most senior openly gay employee, explains it: "So many LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] individuals waste a lot of time and emotional effort keeping their sexuality a secret from their colleagues that it actually impacts on their work. Failure to make the working environment an inclusive place means we don't get the most out of our employees. It is up to senior leaders to make people feel it's OK to be themselves."

You can see why some people want to keep quiet. A poll carried out for Stonewall showed that 2.4m people have witnessed homophobic bullying at work in the last five years and 800,000 had seen physical bullying.

There are few construction sector companies on the 600-strong list of Stonewall Diversity Champions: just Kier Building Maintenance, Lend Lease, Arup, Jones Laing LaSalle and Knight Frank. Local authorities and other public sector organisations feature heavily, but there are also some heavy-hitting private sector firms like KPMG, JP Morgan, Prudential, Shell and Unilever. These firms are actively looking to attract talented LBG people.

Obviously, signing up to the Stonewall charter is just the first step. Then comes the difficult part: addressing the existing culture and changing it.

All things considered, I can't see how this move by Balfour Beatty and others can be anything but positive for construction. Why should people be made to feel that they can't mention their partner at work, bring them to the Christmas party, or share in conversations about nights out at the weekend? I wouldn't want to work somewhere like that.

This article has been written for Industry Image by Kristina Smith, who is a freelance construction writer and editor.