How creative companies can build an authentic culture of acceptance for LGBTQ+ and beyond

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Every year, it’s impossible to miss the rainbow-flagged impact that the annual Pride celebrations have on the world.

With so much attention on the LGBTQ+ communities, the design and branding sector, in particular, becomes noticeably focussed on collaborations temporary logo redesigns, limited edition products and raising money for relevant charities.

While often well-intentioned, all this is frankly transient, and we've seen a ferocious backlash towards some of those corporations who are perceived as merely slapping something colourfully Pride-ish next to their logo, only to remove it once the celebrations are over.

But once the last speck of glitter has settled, we're all faced with a crucial opportunity for individuals, organisations and whole industries to think about and action their approaches to inclusivity. After all, nurturing an open culture of tolerance, respect and support should not be restricted to a six-week campaign.

We take this seriously at Moving Brands. We’re working to make sure everything we do is founded on principles of acceptance and positivity, for the LGBTQ+ community and beyond. This includes the clients we partner with, our culture in our four studios and even what we buy and where from. To get there — and we still have a way to go — we're asking (often uncomfortable) questions. And we encourage you to do the same.

‘Difference’ in design

You might think it’s unusual for us to be directing this article towards the liberal melting pot of personalities that work in creative companies. You could be forgiven for thinking the design world (fuelled by a search for difference, originality and vibrancy) is a safe space. After all, a (depressingly) common stereotype for the creative individual, particularly male, maybe the colourful, flamboyant and yes, gay, designer.

When I first entered the professional world of advertising and branding, I came across fascinating, subtle unpleasantness from some straight men. I reacted by working to be as good as I could be at my job so that I couldn’t have the ‘gay thing’ thrown at me. By having to strive so hard to prove myself, I feel I may have gained some perspective.

Regardless of preconceptions, it’s optimistic to assume that the sector is any further forward in terms of acceptance. Have we ever paused to think about how this might affect that (rarer than you may imagine) creature - the straight, cis, able-bodied, white male, perhaps feeling the pressure to prove their masculinity 'in spite' of being 'a creative'.

Why should your gender or sexual orientation define your skills or professional ambitions? With the exception of certain niche, particularly leftfield career choices, there’s no reason why one sector may employ more or fewer staff identifying as ‘different’ from the next. The real difference lies in their culture and how comfortable an individual feels about being open.

Client considerations

Alongside addressing acceptance internally, clients also need to be considered when questioning a company’s approach to diversity. It’s one thing being open within a studio, but how do inclusivity and acceptance also impact external client/agency relations? It’s a massive part of day-to-day life in the creative sector, so it can’t be overlooked.

A regular dilemma I've witnessed with fellow gay colleagues is "do I need to come out to a client?" (my answer is no, as being gay is probably the ninth most exciting thing about me). But if it becomes clear, I've seen colleagues anxious that the client may react badly. It's important to understand that these concerns could be worrying LGBTQ+ employees. Similar struggles are common with others, with visible and invisible differences, every time they start a new job or meet a new client.

If a company acts negatively to our principles of diversity, Moving Brands would not include it on our client portfolio.

Internal considerations

If a company is reflected by its leadership policies, then there is a lot of work to do. A 2018 report found that only nine Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation and gender identity as diversity criteria in their nomination and governance policies, and less than 0.3% of Fortune 500 board directors are openly LGBTQ+.

For LGBTQ+ people, whether you’re starting a student job in a supermarket or are about to embark on your first big studio role, the workplace anywhere can be a minefield. Having to come out at every new job; navigating awkwardness around the whole marriage, kids or family set up; or fielding well-intentioned questions from co-workers trying to educate themselves. "When did you realise you were gay" Answer: Congratulations, that's the 2000th time I’ve been asked that question. "Can we go shopping together?" Answer: No!

Sexuality is, of course, just one example of ‘difference’, and there are lots of other less obvious challenges that staff may be facing every day. The first step for business leaders should be to make an honest and objective review of how people experience life as an employee, across the board. If leadership is unaware, then it can have no sense of what might be affecting their people from mild irritation to crushing isolation.

It’s tricky to give a golden answer for the perfect process for company-wide acceptance, but there are a few good ways to start. When a new employee joins a firm, it’s crucial to explain the attitudes of the company from the very beginning, and it will create a consistent expectation of accepting behaviour from the recruit’s very first day.

On-boarding, of course, is just the start. What's needed is an enduring commitment assessing every touchpoint within the company and with clients, for as long as the employee is with you.

So, what can we do?

Thankfully, we're finally reaching a stage where it's understood that what makes you 'you' outside of work is what makes you exceptional. A diverse company is one that celebrates this and makes an effort to ensure their people feel comfortable.

Look around your studio and ask, do your people represent true diversity? We’ve been doing this a lot at Moving Brands, and it’s helping us to learn what steps we need to make.

You could even consider taking a bias test. See how accepting your leadership team and other stakeholders really are. Harvard has one you can take here.

Consider things such as what’s the easiest, least stressful way for a new starter to come out? How do you encourage staff to open up if they struggle with mental health, without fear of being fired? How do you as an organisation see other emotional life moments such as breakups, for example - does compassionate leave include these kinds of life events? We’re asking these questions too.

This article was written by Philip Browning, copy director at global creative and innovation company, Moving Brands.