Australia could have a defined workplace equality program in place as soon as October, according to a UK workplace diversity expert.

The Diversity Council, in conjunction with ACON, has employed David Shields, a key figure involved with Stonewall UK’s Diversity Champions program, to advise on setting up a similar system here.

Started in the UK in 2001, Diversity Champions has developed strategies to increase equality for gay and lesbian people in the workforce.

Its Workplace Equality Index has grown from a list of a few forward-thinking companies to a highly competitive rundown of companies coveting the top spot, indicating a distinct shift in employer attitudes.

It is an experience Australia can learn from, Shields said. We would say equality is the starting point and what we’re really looking for is equality in terms of the lived experience -” so people are able to be out in the workplace, people don’t experience the current levels of discrimination and harassment.

Working with employers and putting good practice in place is the way you can create that environment, he told Sydney Star Observer.

It’s really practical changes in the workplace. It’s things like having an employee network group. Gay and lesbian people in the workplace have tended to be invisible and what you need to do is start to make them more visible. Rather than have one individual doing that it’s better to have a network of GLBT people.

There are similarities between the Australian and UK examples, including corporate ties between companies that have already signed on overseas, but there is one major setback, according to Shields.

We have employment protection in the UK against dismissal on the grounds of sexual orientation and you seem to have a more ambiguous, very piecemeal approach, which for some employers can confuse them, he said.

If you’re an employer, how do you navigate that or understand that? It’s almost like the need for an employer’s forum here is to help people have a grip on legislative requirements.

There’s also a lot of change around recognising same-sex relationships. How do employers manage their policies, their benefits, their practices to ensure they also recognise same-sex relationships?

Shields will work with ACON and the Diversity Council over the next week to develop a skeleton guideline to be modified and implemented in the Australian context, hopefully by October.

info: For more on Stonewall UK and its workplace diversity program visitstonewall.org.uk/at_work

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