Mark Latchford is Vice-President, Systems and Technology Group, IBM Australia and New Zealand, and in his unofficial capacity is also the Executive Sponsor of the Gay and Lesbian Diversity Network here in Australia. He talks about the company’s commitment to gay and lesbian Australians.

In 2007, a poll targeting high-level executives showed 40 percent of CEOs believed that people are the most important driver of growth and innovation – a significant increase on all previous surveys. This recognition should be seen as very encouraging for those of us who have known that talent makes or breaks an organisation.

With population growth on the decline and with analysts predicting that by the year 2020, Australia will have a skilled labour shortage of half a million people, it’s time for the business community at large not only to start planning but to implement a diversity policy aimed at retaining and attracting the very best employees. This particularly applies to employees from groups that may have the (incorrect) assumption that large, competitive organisations are not inclusive of key members of the broader community, such as the readers of this newspaper in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (GLBTI) community.

IBM is an example of a company that realised the importance of embracing diversity and equality as early as 1935 with Thomas Watson Sr, IBM’s CEO and founder, introducing the equal pay for equal work initiative. This was 28 years before the US Equal Pay Act.

IBM was also the first major company to add sexual orientation to its US non-discrimination policy, and in 2004 IBM launched a networking group for GLBTI employees that now has a membership of 97 participants in Australia and many thousands worldwide. IBM also boasts 44 “out and proud” high-level executives around the globe.

With the concept of “innovation” being the message that IBM has built its brand on, it only makes sense that the evolution of the company involves an acceptance of employees from all backgrounds, including sexual orientation. By not limiting incoming employees to a certain demographic, IBM has remained one of the top corporations in the world to work for, year after year. To put it simply, diversity fuels creativity which in turn fires up innovation.

Another benefit of embracing workplace diversity is realising that the concept is a bridge between the workplace itself and the marketplace. IBM has a sales staff dedicated to the GLBTI business community. This is the first team of its kind in any Fortune 500 technology company, which is shocking considering that studies show GLBTI decision-makers favour a company that embraces the GLBTI community.

These customers appreciate and value suppliers that have openly out employees.

As a result, IBM can attribute tens of millions of dollars in global attributable revenue to its diversity strategy. More importantly, IBM is fostering a workplace where all employees feel valued and are contributing to a more diversified workplace.

With a new workforce entering the market, corporate decision makers need to realise that this generation is a hot commodity in the war for talent. Studies show that Gen Y is looking for socially responsible employers, and IBM seems to be hitting the mark with 75 percent of graduate candidates citing diversity reasons for joining IBM.

Some of the popular diversity programs being implemented at IBM include HR policies and benefits offering equal access for same-sex couples, supporting an employee float at the Sydney Mardi Gras and utilising the 2004 Federal amendments to “interdependency provisions” for IBM superannuation policy.

In Asia-Pacific, economic and demographic drivers have brought us to a point where the GLBTI community will be increasingly valued as a vital resource. We must work together in the business community to share best practices to make sure that this potential is realised.

As innovation becomes increasingly important to companies in Australia the diversity agenda will most definitely take on a far more strategic importance because as Jeff Immelt, Chairman and CEO of General Electric, once said, “If you’re not innovating, you’re in commodity hell.”

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