HR & Management

OUTstanding's CEO on the value of inclusive marketing for diversity

8 min read

15 June 2015

Neil Bentley, chief executive of the professional network for LGBT and ally senior executives, spoke to Real Business about where companies should be focusing efforts to improve diversity and his aims for further transforming the workplace.

During twelve years spent at the CBI, Neil Bentley helped set up the Equality and Human Rights Commission and established the CBI’s Leadership Programme to support diversity in the boardroom. 

This involved CEOs nominating top talent for the initiative, with nominees from a wide range of social backgrounds, different sexual orientation, ethnic backgrounds and gender. The programme was a way of implementing something practical from a business perspective – something which Bentley seems to make a focus of his diversity efforts across the board.

He recently joined OUTstanding as CEO and hopes his efforts will eventually make the role obsolete.

OUTstanding has grown in members since Bentley took up his role in February, from 20 organisations to 45 – 13 of which are FTSE companies. Corporate members include Google, BT, IBM, EY and American Express.

He feels that the sentiment is positive towards further improving the diversity agenda and can think of a couple of areas where businesses have been doing particularly well. “There has been a big focus on HR and leadership making the workplace more inclusive. Everyone from Barclays to BP is doing good work,” he explained.

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With interest in the cause established among companies, Bentley suggested the next step is moving from employers to branding. “It’s about how we mainstream it and externalise diversity through branding,” he said. “It’s focusing on helping businesses reflect these values they want to demonstrate.”

Bentley added that it’s an important consideration in terms of talent attraction too, as companies which are vocal about being inclusive and prioritising diversity are more appealing to prospective young employees.

It is a similar concept to ethical consumerism, where purchasing decisions are based on ethical reasons such as a business’s behaviour. The Co-operative Bank found half of UK adults purchase some products primarily for ethical reasons. Three in five choose products based specifically on a company’s behaviour. Similarly, YouGov found that three in five LGBT people – over two million UK consumers – were more likely to buy products if they think a company is gay-friendly.

The business benefits are clear and Bentley believes the social impact could be significant too – if done correctly, “inclusive marketing” can be a route to making diversity at the front of people’s awareness on a day-to-day level. He cited Barclays’ use of advertising in an integrated way – allowing people to put their own pictures on debit cards and including a range of people on the ads shown on TV. “It shows a diverse range of people as part of their customer base, which is really effective,” he said.

Then at cash machines, Barclays has used days such as International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia to voice its support using messages on screen. It was last year’s headline sponsor for London pride with over 200 employees signing up to help represent the company on the day. For the day, it turned a number of its machines along the route into “GAYTMs”, providing a unified marketing approach that Bentley feels should be where employers look to focus their efforts next.

Image: Shutterstock

He suggested that talking about inclusive marketing more also links back to business growth. “Performance and productivity increases and people are more innovative if they’re comfortable being themselves at work. If we can focus on sales and marketing integration that’s a good next step and the business case is strong for being progressive,” he said.

The need for companies to present as inclusive an image as possible isn’t just a cynical route to good PR – prospective talent need to know as soon as possible, that they will be welcomed into the workplace. A study from the Centre for Talent Innovation from 2013 said 41 per cent of LGBT people don’t feel disclosing their sexuality at work, while the Human Rights Campaign found that 62 per cent of Generation Y LGBT graduates go back into the closet, after taking their first job.

From Bentley’s perspective, the problem here is clear. “Companies obviously aren’t sending out strong enough signals that they are LGBT friendly and an ally leader. They need to be encouraging in helping people be out at work.”

He added that businesses need to “send a powerful message”, which can be as simple as having an LGBT network in place, so there’s a visible welcome signpost for any new recruits. Barclays, for example, has a network called Spectrum, which is responsible for the bank’s involvement in Pride in London every year.

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It’s reassuring too, to note that Bentley agreed most businesses are increasingly interested in diversity and making sure it is reflected in the workplace. “They’re keen to grab the agenda and ensure they’re implementing the best practices. OUTstanding is about supporting companies in a practical way.”

He said: “They don’t just want to to talk about it, they want to do something.”

Bentley himself has been actively involved with the diversity agenda for a while. Aside from his twelve years spent at CBI helping implement effective equality policies, he has also been a trustee and deputy chair of LGBT charity Stonewall and his PhD focused on German industrial relations and racism in the workplace.

He has seen a lot of progress been made across the board, but feels there is, of course, plenty more on the horizon to accomplish. “There has been some great stuff done with regards to gender equality – a lot of people have been focused on that and particularly, getting women into senior positions,” he said.

“I think we need to extend that conversation to cover sexual orientation, ethnic minorities, disability and social background,” he explained. There’s scope for an all-encompassing agenda, or additional initiatives that run alongside one another.

“Most people have something about them that’s different and we have to harness that,” Bentley said. It will help businesses perform to their best, and a company should be reflective of its employees’ differences. Quite simply, “it’s about broadening the debate,” as Bentley summarised.