An initiative designed to offer advice and support to thousands of LGBT employees is helping the Co-operative Group lead the way on equality issues.
Members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender employee network Respect recently celebrated the fact that the Group is now officially the most LGB-friendly retailer in the UK, ranking third in the 2013 Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, which measures employers’ efforts to tackle discrimination in the workplace.
Launched in June 2010, the network is there to support LGBT staff and to advise the Group on all matters relating to inclusivity and equality. Its Co-Chair is Thomas Anderson, who has worked for Co-operative Pharmacy for five years.
He said: “The Co-operative Group has always led the way on equality and there was a real appetite for the idea when we started.
“For many years now the Co-operative Group has sponsored Pride events in Manchester and elsewhere and given thousands of pounds to gay charities. Our diversity teams have also done a lot of valuable work so it was a natural progression to set up the network. It is really important that LGBT matters are driven by people who really understand the issues and can help break down the barriers which still remain.”
The initiative is led by a 16-strong steering committee made up of Co-operative Group employees from right across the board in all parts of the UK. Its e-network has over 2,700 members through social networking on Facebook and Twitter and there is an e-newsletter with regular social events and meetings for members.
Said Thomas: “We are here to offer help and advice and the opportunity to speak to like-minded people and counter negativity in the workplace
“There are members at every level possible, from the shop floor to those who decide what goes on the shelves. In a relatively short space of time we have become one of the largest networks of this kind and are continuing to grow.”
He added: “We have come a long way in the past 20 years or so – but it is not so long ago that homosexuality was illegal and you could end up in jail. Many of our employees now just over retirement age will remember those days.
“Times may have changed but there are still lots of inequalities out there and we need to set a positive example.”
According to statistics released by the Co-operative Group, around four per cent of employees identify themselves as LGBT.
In a recent survey of 108,000 employees, 86 per cent replied and 91 per cent declared their sexual orientation.
Thomas said: “By any standards, that’s a massive response to a questionnaire, but you would hope that people working for the Co-operative Group would be comfortable saying how they feel about such issues.”
LGBT employees were at the forefront of the recent submission put together by the Co-operative Group in support of equal marriage and the Group was the only employer to give evidence support in Parliament.
Group staff also produced a video of support with contributions from leading co-operators including Paul Flowers, Chair of the Co-operative Banking Group.
At last year’s Co-operatives United event in Manchester, Mr Flowers also hosted an event attended by over 400 employees and ten different LGBT charities celebrating the achievements of the Co-operative Group.
Respect is now working with other leading retailers, including ASDA, John Lewis and Morrisons, to help launch checkOUT – an inter-retail support group for LGBT employees.
Meanwhile, there has been a clutch of other awards for achievements in the equality field. The Group recently won another Stonewall award for its innovative approach to offering products and services to LGBT customers. The Pink Paper awards also recognised The Co-operative Bank as the best bank/financial institution and the third best LGBT business in the UK.
And the Co-operative Group was named ‘Employer of the Year’ at the inaugural National Student Pride Awards held in Brighton at the beginning of March.
Said Thomas: “To win an award that was voted for by students is a testament to how The Co-operative is positively viewed by many people around the UK.
“It’s very important we are representative of the communities that we serve and that everybody has the same positive work experience and everyone has a voice. We are a very diverse organisation with thousands of employees from remote parts of Scotland down to the South-East and one of the biggest challenges we face is reaching everyone right across the spectrum.”
He added: “We are proud to be a benchmark for the retail sector thanks to our ethics and our values.
“The work will carry on in 2013. We have no intention of resting on our laurels We are proud of what we have achieved but there is always work to be done and we still have a lot of work to do.”