Pride Month in the US has come and gone, and many organisations have moved their rainbow flags down to storage until next Pride Month. But companies and finance departments are increasingly realising the benefits of going beyond window dressing and implementing more substantial initiatives that support the LGBTQ+ community both within and outside of their organisations.
The term "rainbow washing" has been used to describe companies and organisations that publicly appear supportive of LGBTQ+ causes but don't take any substantial action in support of, or actively engage in practices harmful to, the LGBTQ+ community.
"On one hand, it's great that you start seeing the rainbow flag all over the place during Pride Month, but quite often when you start scratching under the surface, it doesn't permeate any further than the epidermis of that particular organisation," said Ed Watson, a brand communication expert and creative director based in London.
Rainbow washing often backfires for companies, according to Watson, because as soon as people have realised there's no depth past the rainbow flag, they often become disillusioned, and it takes a lot of time and marketing money to regain people's trust.
"It does bother me that companies can use that position of privilege and power they have to profit off that minority group during a month which is so important to people in the LGBTQ+ community," said Maisy Butroid, local operations manager (response) and employee support lead for Archway, the LGBTQ+ staff network at Network Rail, which owns and operates Britain's railway infrastructure. "People are still fighting for their rights across the world, and Pride Month is not meant for big companies to go in and flash a rainbow to encourage people to spend money at their shop."
For organisations and finance professionals who want to avoid rainbow washing and create effective efforts that last beyond Pride Month, the key is to act with authenticity and consistency throughout the year.
Take a hard look at your current practices
Organisations especially guilty of rainbow washing are those that conduct rainbow media and product campaigns during Pride Month while failing to support the LGBTQ+ community in other areas of business. Before slapping a rainbow flag on company merchandise, it's worth taking a moment to examine the organisation's current policies, practices, alliances, and supply chains.
Take a look at whether members of the LGBTQ+ community are represented throughout all levels of your organisation, including on the board and in leadership positions. Check to see what policies you have in place to support your LGBTQ+ employees and stakeholders, and determine whether your company is financially supporting or working with any organisations that are harming or restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals.
"It is about drilling down to the level of ethical investments and social responsibility," Watson said. "It's a very back-to-basics approach, where they place themselves under a microscopic lens and not only look at how they treat queer individuals but also about how they treat women and other minorities."
If you discover your organisation is not effectively supporting the LGBTQ+ community, consider addressing those issues before raising any rainbow flags.
Increase diversity of all kinds across your organisation
It can be easy to fall into the trap of rainbow washing if there is little to no LGBTQ+ representation within your organisation. Increased diversity will not only lead to better business outcomes but can also help your company avoid making any embarrassing missteps as you navigate how to best signal support for the LGBTQ+ community. A 2019 study by McKinsey found that the most diverse companies were "more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability". McKinsey found that when it comes to ethnic and cultural diversity, "in 2019, top-quartile companies outperformed those in the fourth one by 36% in profitability".
"The data shows that LGBTQ+-inclusive companies financially outperform, not to mention it's the right thing to do," said Mariana Ceccotti, consultant and co-chair of the LGBTQ+ network at KPMG UK. "If people aren't comfortable being themselves at work, you're just paying for people who aren't totally there and you're wasting your resources."
Increasing diversity is not always easy, but you can start by including language within job postings that explicitly states your organisation is LGBTQ+-inclusive. Aim to cast a wide net by posting openings on a variety of channels, and ensure that interview panels are diverse.
Finance still has a lot of room to grow, according to Ceccotti. "I think there is a lot more work to be done, and the first step is acknowledging that that is the case," she said. "Making sure your company has a diverse workforce is essential; otherwise I think you're not going to get anywhere."
Watson agreed, adding that companies that ignore difference do so at their own peril.
"Any interaction you have where you're spending money, you want to feel like you're part of the community where you belong," he said. "So not only does it make moral sense, but it also makes sense from the point of view of the books."
Build an internal support network
Another great way to support LGBTQ+ employees year-round is by creating employee networks that enable your team to meet like-minded colleagues and have a safe place to provide feedback on how leaders can be more effective at improving value and a sense of belonging in the workplace. For example, Network Rail has six employee networks, including Archway, which promotes LGBTQ+ inclusion and aims to educate the wider industry on how to support the community.
Archway was created for LGBTQ+ employees and allies, and the network has implemented a range of initiatives, from helping transgender employees through their transition to hosting a weekly virtual coffee meetup where employees can connect and talk about their experiences. Network Rail also encourages employees to show their support for diversity and inclusion by wearing a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Champion lanyard throughout the year.
"The idea is you can go and talk to anyone wearing the lanyard about unfair behaviour or ideas for making the workplace more inclusive and accessible," said Diane Lorgeré, ACMA, CGMA, senior finance business partner with Network Rail. "Anyone can be a D&I Champion, from our chairman all the way to someone in a junior role. I think it's a good, non-time-specific way of getting people involved in D&I."
KPMG UK also has an LGBTQ+ employee network called Breathe, which aims to promote diversity, inclusion, and social equality across the three pillars of community, workplace, and clients. KPMG's network is employee-led and supported by senior leaders across the firm, such as Melanie Knight, ACMA, CGMA, who is the lead LGBTQ+ ally for the UK firm.
"Having a strong employee network of LGBTQ+ people creates strength in numbers and helps us all feel more comfortable and less isolated," said Hannah Mason, one of the deputy chairs of the KPMG Breathe Network.
Consult outside of your bubble
Decisions made within a vacuum risk falling flat when released out into the world. When deciding how to celebrate Pride Month, consult with a broad spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community and other minority groups both within and outside of your organisation to test your ideas before running with them.
"We were recently having the debate about whether we should march in London Pride or not, and the most helpful thing was talking to our Black Heritage Network and getting their thoughts on what would be a good thing to do," Ceccotti said. "Make sure you're always looking for feedback on initiatives and opportunities to grow, and not always doing the same thing just because it's been done before."
Ceccotti added it's a good idea to foster relationships with charitable organisations that support LGBTQ+ causes, both so you can work with them on initiatives and also run ideas by them.
Be consistent and aim to celebrate Pride every month
Perhaps the best way to avoid rainbow washing is by consistently supporting the LGBTQ+ community the entire year. Both Network Rail and KPMG have year-round initiatives and events on other key days including International Transgender Day of Visibility on 31 March, International Non-Binary People's Day on 14 July, and World AIDS Day on 1 December.
"If they want to do something for Pride, that's great, but show us what else you're doing for the rest of the year," Butroid said. "Are you supporting any charities? Have you got an employee network at your organisation? Have some strategies in place to make the world a better place for LGBT people."
In addition to regularly donating to LGBTQ+ charities, holding year-round events to educate the broader community, and forming strong employee networks, organisations can demonstrate consistency by maintaining the same message with employees, clients, customers, and the community.
"We make sure when we're talking to clients that we're not putting on one face for them and another face when we're talking internally," Ceccotti said. "When we sell ourselves to brands, we make sure they know we really care about diversity and inclusion, and we want to bring our clients along for the journey."
Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.
"Accounting Profession Continues to Zero In on DEI Issues", Journal of Accountancy, 24 May 2021
"CFOs Should Act With Intention to Make Diversity a Reality", FM magazine, 21 May 2021
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