IN just five years, Commonwealth Bank (CBA) has gone from having no formal approach to inclusion for its LGBTI employees to achieving gold status as one of Australia’s top ten employers at the 2017 Australian Workplace Equity Index (AWEI) awards, with its LGBTI employee network Unity also winning best network for a second consecutive year.

CBA’s subsidiary, Bankwest, also ranked as a gold employer in the 2017 AWEI.

“Leaps and bounds” is how Unity co-chair Lucy Riggall describes the progress made by CBA in the past few years.

“Five years ago I would never have envisaged speaking to CBA’s senior leader team about the issues our LGBTI employees faced then. AWEI’s recognition is real validation of what has been achieved internally in such a short time,” she said.

This sentiment is echoed by David Brine, who shares the chair of Unity with Riggall. The pivotal moment for him in becoming an LGBTI advocate at CBA was when he attended his first AWEI luncheon back in 2012.

“I looked across a room of 250 people representing many major Australian organisations,” he said.

“I could see the other Australian banks, and the global banks, but I couldn’t see CBA.”

Following this experience, Brine raised the issue with a senior executive of Bank about why CBA, given its size and influence in Australia, was not represented officially at the event.

“CBA is known as a great place to work, but at that time there was no discussion about issues affecting LGBTI employees, which meant that we were probably losing talented employees who were unsure whether they could speak freely, or we were just not attracting them in the first place,” he said.

This initial trigger gave these underrepresented employees visibility, and the result was the creation of Unity, arguably now CBA’s most motivated and passionate employee network.

Its mandate then—and still—includes advocating and facilitating a culture of inclusion and respect, regardless of sexuality, gender and expression.

It has also played a key role in raising awareness of LGBTI people and issues to support CBA as a ‘safe place’ for LGBTI employees, and to enhance its external reputation among LGBTI people in the community.

Unity has run training for over 3,000 members, champions and allies across CBA, and enjoys the committed involvement of senior leaders.

Riggall believes the driving force behind Unity’s incredibly committed people is that LGBTI employees in Australia and many other parts of the world where CBA operates still face legal discrimination.

“The passion comes from a really personal space. We don’t have equality in society yet and the fight is still on. I was a bystander in terms of advocacy until I realised I was going to have a family, and I wanted my child to know that having two mums was okay,” she said.

The AWEI recognitions have been standout milestones for the three years Brine and Riggall have chaired Unity. For Riggall, another important achievement was the support provided to three bank employees who transitioned in the past year.

“One of these employees has a great network in the transgender community, and she says CBA is now known to be very supportive of people transitioning. This reputation in the market underscores how genuinely inclusive CBA has become,” she said.

Brine and Riggall are passing the leadership torch from July to Nicole Brennan and Lis Brown, who will guide Unity on the next part of its journey. This will include further promoting the network in CBA’s operations in Asia, Africa, Europe and the US.

CBA’s Hong Kong branch recently announced it had achieved the Gold Standard in the 2017 HK LGBT+ Workplace Inclusion Index, ranking eighth for its focus on diversity and inclusion, up from 15th  in the previous 2015 HK index.

Read more about CBA’s approach to inclusion and AWEI details.

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