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Pride special: busting workplace assumptions around LGBTQ+

Student voices, the ally-advocate distinction, and what the research tells us

By Anna Johnston 06 July 2018

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Pride is a time for the world's LGBTQ+ communities to come together and celebrate being themselves. An employee who feels accepted for who they are – regardless of their sexuality and gender identity – is a productive employee who brings their best ideas to work.

The reality is that there are untapped opportunities to build truly inclusive organisations.

Assume firms and the leaders within them want to do the right thing. Question is, how? If helping everyone at work feel included so that they can reach their potential is doing the right thing, then it is easier said than done.

London Business School (LBS) students and faculty joined forces to explore some of the assumptions that LGBTQ+ people can face at work and the ways organisations can best support them.

In this exclusive podcast, Allie Fleder, Ritu Chakrabarti, Jaime Noain Larrinaga and Yifei You – three MBA students and a Masters in Management student respectively – share candid truths about being part of the LGBTQ+ community.



Prejudice – ranging from comments such as “you don’t look gay” to offensive slurs – can persist in even the most progressive global environments, they explain.

Noain Larrinaga calls the LGBTQ+ community his “safe space”. He explains: “Most of us will have gone through rejection from people we love. We deal with awkwardness daily. Being part of something builds camaraderie.”

Mutual understanding flows through the 900 LBS Out in Business Club members, of which India-born Chakrabarti is one.

Ally or advocate?

Chakrabarti joined the club as an ally because she felt deeply impacted by the discrimination of her friends and colleagues in India. Pledging allegiance is her way of taking action.

“I could see how life was a struggle for my friends on a daily basis. Not just at home but in the workplace. I believe that you don't need to be directly affected by a cause to support it. If that was the case, we wouldn't make any social progress.”

Fleder, President of Out in Business, notes an important conversational shift – from allies to advocates. “An advocate is someone who is actively engaged. Someone willing to speak up on behalf of the community and speak up if they're in a group of people who are using slurs to talk about LQBTQ+ people. Willing to speak up in their campuses, companies and communities.”

Aneeta Rattan, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS, says there is space for both allies and advocates. “The distinction is an important and meaningful one. Allies are people who feel strongly that members of sexual orientation minorities do not deserve and should not bear any kind of social exclusion, based on their sexual orientation or gender identity status. Advocates are people who are ready to give their time, energy, power and resources to promoting equality for members of these groups.”

In an ideal world, she notes, organisations would encourage those in structural positions of power to act as advocates. “Of course, a voice from anywhere is essential, positive and valued when they're speaking for equality. But when leaders model these behaviours they can signal to everyone in the organisation what is and what is not acceptable.”

Advocates in leadership positions are a rare commodity. When leaders do speak up, they have a greater opportunity to stand out. Dr Rattan says: “By showing that they value people for the intellectual potential they bring, not who they love or how they live their lives, they can send a strong signal of belonging and inclusion.”


What the research tells us

Dr Rattan contributed to a thought leadership podcast to coincide with Pride, along with Keyvan Vakili, Assistant Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, and Aharon Mohliver, Assistant Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship.

As summarised by host Randall S Peterson, Academic Director of the Leadership Institute and Professor of Organisational Behaviour, there are three broad takeaways:


  • Organisations need leaders who will signal inclusion, and do something about it
  • Steps don’t have to be radical – subtle cues can foster inclusion
  • There can be medium- and long-term benefits in the form of innovation when leaders signal they value inclusion and diversity.

As a snapshot, Dr Rattan busts the assumption that private lives should stay at home. It’s a deeply flawed way of thinking, she says, because it relies on the heteronormative expectations that people have. Another assumption? Saying, “We're comfortable with your identity” and leaving it there. “Companies have to act on the things they say,” notes Dr Rattan.

In her research with co-author Nalini Ambady, Dr Rattan took the #ItGetsBetter YouTube campaign videos as a window into how people express support to LGBTQ+ teenagers. They categorised the content of the 50 most-viewed videos (which at the time had been viewed over 15 million times) as social connection and social change messages. Social connection messages suggested that those targeted by prejudice would find social acceptance in the future. Social change messages focused on the idea that individuals or society could change. The results were revealing: though both messages were rated as comforting, lesbian, gay, and bisexual students found more comfort in messages that advocated social change.

Listen in to discover how leaders can implement this finding and model inclusive behaviours.

Also featured is Dr Vakili, who through a study of regional rates of innovation with Laurina Zhang shows that passing liberal policies such as equal marriage increases both the rate of innovation and its quality.

“From a business point of view, what is the effect of inclusion? Does it come at a cost? Is there a benefit? This is the angle we took in our research,” he explains.

Regions that become more open and liberal increase their competitiveness in innovation and patenting. The assumption here? That inclusive policies are a moral imperative, but that they don’t really change the bottom line. The reality? Liberalisation policies increase patenting, while the anti‐liberalisation policy reduces it.

Offering a different perspective is Dr Mohliver. With co-authors Donal Crilly and SungYong Chang, he finds that promoting LGBTQ+ policies in firms can backfire.

Their ongoing research reveals that as firms affiliate in support of a given social issue they can alienate some of their stakeholders. In ‘Corporate Social Counterpositioning: The Impact of Issue Salience on the Distribution of Corporate Social Responsibility Espousal’, Dr Mohliver observes liberal societies with “pockets of persistent discrimination”.

He says: “Firms feed their beliefs to their employees and these employees feed their beliefs to each other. When you have firms that benefit from discriminating, these beliefs reinforce over time.”

How can organisations implement change at a pace to suit employees and the workplace culture? The full podcast illuminates.

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