Czech companies make slow progress taking on board LGBT diversity

26-08-2015

Business through diversity was the theme of a day long seminar accompanying the recent Prague Pride events. Basically, speakers argued that companies and institutions which allowed their lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual employees to be open about their sexual preferences get a much better performance out of them. Such companies also improve their overall image, improve recruiting chances, and plug into a significant section of the market. So, how is the Czech Republic doing with regard to the LGBT community and market?

Prague Pride, photo: Miloslav HamříkPrague Pride, photo: Miloslav Hamřík When one of the biggest Czech breweries Staropramen decided to sponsor Prague Pride the backlash was probably greater than business managers could have expected. An active campaign of anti-gay groups attacked the brewery and called on the Czech public not to buy its beer. Staropramen beer was, in the words of the words of the campaign, ‘teplý pivo.’ Teplý means warm but is also Czech slang for gay. The hostile reaction made company bosses consider dropping its sponsorship of Prague Pride, but they eventually rode out the negative reaction and the backing continues. Bosses say there was even a wave of support for the brewery and they probably won new friends and customers as a result.

Active or passive?

Some companies, such as the Czech branch of the telecoms multinational, Vodafone, have taken up the cause of supporting LGBT employees in the workplace and encourage them to be open about their sexual orientation. Branislav Rovný is the head of sales for the company:

“For us it is not just a positive attitude but a pro-active one. It is really from passive tolerance, which we believe is there, and taking the next step and saying that we are not only non-discriminatory but we want to show in a positive and pro-active way to engage people to come out and tell them to be at ease and be at their best because only afterwards can we be at our best as a company.”

“The big companies probably have the opportunity to carry out more broad picture changes.”

Rovný puts that attitude in part down to Vodafone’s past history as the Canadian owned telecoms company Oscar and the open environment that that company fostered. But Czech companies as a whole do not appear to be in the vanguard as regards LGBT rights but they are not among Europe’s worst performers either. Prague Pride surveyed the situation in the Czech workplace in 2013 and gain this year. The results suggested that there has been little change or evolution. As regards admitting their sexuality, around a third of employees prefer to stay in the proverbial closet, less than 15 percent say they have openly come out, and just over half will admit their sexuality if pressed on the point. Around a quarter say they expect a negative reaction if they çome out.’ That figure is slightly down on the 28 percent registered in 2013.

And the experience of the Czech LGBT community in the workplace? Around two-thirds say fellow employers and bosses are friendly or mostly friendly. But around a fifth say the environment is less friendly and around one in six say they face a hostile workplace. Almost 20 percent of gays and lesbians say they have experienced discrimination.

Petr Tomáš is a consultant for Prague Pride and described the survey results at the business forum.

“For the last two years the situation is more or less a stable one. For the most part, probably the most friendly are the small companies, probably up to 10 employees. That is kind of natural because if it is very small you either fit or not and you leave. But the big companies probably have the opportunity to carry out more broad picture changes and change the atmosphere better for the whole of society than the smaller ones.“

Photo: Helen Robinson, CC BY-SA 2.5Photo: Helen Robinson, CC BY-SA 2.5 Tomáš says many Czech members of the LGBT community have fundamentally practical reasons for keeping their private lives out of the work environment. Many speakers at the business forum cautioned though that living such strictly compartmentalized lives puts many employees under an enormous strain and can often lead to a breakdown.

“Less than a fifth of persons are ‘out ’ because there are still many worries. Primarily it is about their careers, reactions from their colleagues, and worries about how it would affect team spirit etc and that is across many activities. One of the biggest obstacles to completely come out is for example team building and business trips and how colleagues would react to sharing a bedroom with a gay guy or lesbian. It is these practical things. Of course there are companies that are hostile to gays and lesbians as such but it seems that people are solving very practical issues about what it means to be openly gay or lesbian.”

At an international level, some multinational companies now actively seek to promote LGBT rights in the workplace. The proportion of LGBT workers is monitored where possible as are their promotions and the number who leave the firm in a bid to determine whether they are facing discrimination. Sexual preference can be a question asked about in surveys by employers though normally with option of job applicants or workers not replying. Gay couples are also given the same rights, for example regarding the pension and health and insurance rights, as straight couples.

Surveying sexual preferences?

“I think that we need a few years to build the LGBT strategy step by step among Czech employers.”

But in the Czech work environment this active promotion of gay rights is still a step that many companies are reluctant to take. The preferred standpoint, to borrow a phrase from the famous US military stance, is ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Even such apparently liberal minded companies such as Staropramen, now a unit of the US-Canadian brewery empire Molson-Coors, say they don’t believe it is their business to ask employees about their sexual preferences but would act immediately if they thought there was discrimination. Questions about sexual orientation when staff are applying for jobs or are recruited are now fairly common in the US and some European countries.

The Czech non-profit Business for Society also carried out a survey this year of how far big companies include LGBT issues in their diversity policies. Around 70 percent of the companies surveyed were Czech branches of multinationals and the rest Czech-based firms. It found that only one in 10 companies have incorporated LGBT issues in their diversity policies.

Chairwoman of Business for Society, Pavlína Kaloušová, says that many company human resources departments simply do not have this type of diversity on their radar screens.

“It is partly because diversity as such is a new issue among Czech companies. Secondly, it is also because there is not a clear public demand from the LGBT employees with regard to their employers. It is emerging and it’s emerging pretty fast. There is a rule that all multinational companies and their branches have a diversity and inclusion policy and among the 10 percent these are the branches of international companies. Czech companies have diversity policies but they look into issues such as ageing populations, such as intergenerational relations, and such as gender diversity.”

Pavlína Kaloušová says that there are signs that the hands off approach with regard to sexual diversity could change in the longer term:

Photo: Tomáš AdamecPhoto: Tomáš Adamec “Well the European Commission could try to encourage LGBT diversity management in the workplace. But I think that even today’s conference, where we had more than 300 people registered and Czech companies and Czech branches of international companies, is a clear signal. But at the same time I think that we need a few years to build the LGBT strategy step by step among Czech employers.”

26-08-2015