Pride @ work: How Gen Z are changing the rules

A version of this article appeared in the Economist Pride & Prejudice 2019 Perspectives

As the LGBT+ community in Hong Kong grew in strength and visibility, much of the vocal LGBT+ advocacy initially came from gay white western men within the business sector. In some ways this makes sense; growing up and entering the workforce in Western cities may have offered an easier environment in which to come out, compared with the cultural norms and taboos that the local community in Hong Kong face. That said, we have seen a welcome shift in recent years to increased local engagement in LGBT+ advocacy. Pink Alliance, QSA, Hong Kong Pride Parade, Hong Kong Queer Literary and Cultural Festival, Lezohk are just some examples of vibrant LGBT+ groups in Hong Kong contributing to the dialogue and led by local people. This is only set to increase, as a younger generation comes into their own and begins to take on a larger mantle of leadership.

In Hong Kong, the topic of LGBT+ is still taboo. This being the case, it makes sense that more of the out leadership may have been gay male westerners. Even now, it is not common for local people to be fully out at work, and even less so for people to be out to their families. The risks are still there for many LGBT+ Hongkongers; it is not uncommon for people to face a difficult situation around living space, having to choose between moving out of the family home and face steep Hong Kong housing prices, or risk being caught by their family. Traditional mindsets are changing though, with a 2016 survey by the Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission showing that 91.8% of young people aged 18 to 24 believe that LGBT+ people should have anti-discrimination protections under the law (compared with 36.7% of those aged 65 and over).

With Gen Z just beginning to enter the workforce, they bring with them a vastly different world view and experience to previous generations. They are digital natives; the first generation to be fully surrounded by digital technology. Most grew up with unfettered access to the internet and mobile phones and are highly tech-savvy and comfortable expressing themselves online, as well as evaluating information from several sources across the world simultaneously. They have instant access to a like-minded community across the globe and can therefore validate their experiences and feelings on a much wider scale than those who came before. From a positive perspective, this can ease the fear and isolation that a young LGBT+ individual may experience, allowing them to harness a global experience to raise the bar in expectations in their personal and working lives (if you know that currently something good is happening abroad, why wouldn’t you demand it at home?)

As we’ve seen with previous generations, but to a greater extent now, once in the workforce and armed with their global world experience, Gen Z expect more from their employers. More than ever before, the younger generation – as both employees and consumers – require companies to practice active inclusion, even if the cause does not directly relate to their own life experience (straight people may use an organisation’s proactive or inactive stance towards inclusion as a signpost for how inclusive they will be towards other demographics). Despite this, young people are often unable to bring their full selves to work and find that even if they are out in almost every aspect of their life, they return to the closet when starting a job. Research by the Center for Talent Innovation in New York found that 62% of LGBT+ graduates went back into the closet when they started their first job and it is safe to assume that number is higher in Hong Kong where LGBT+ status is not protected under the current anti-discrimination laws. As Gen Z enter the workforce, they are increasingly vocalising their dissatisfaction with this, and are willing to move jobs, even careers, if their roles are no longer stimulating or they find they are unable to represent their true selves at work. Studies show that coming out at work can increase job satisfaction, and intention to stay, whereas staying “in the closet” can have costs — both for the individual and the company.

As a generation, Gen Z is making a conscious choice to do their due diligence on an organisation before joining and can tell if an employer is not being genuine in its commitment to Diversity & Inclusion (D&I). They expect ERGs (employee resource groups) to inform business strategy and will likely be similar to Millennials in their desire for organisations to make a positive social impact. This generation is willing to go over and above the call of their day job to prioritise LGBT+ inclusion. In fact, many of those who work to make their offices more LGBT+ inclusive do not have D&I as part of their day job.

Gen Z are optimistic about the future and clearly willing to work for it, but only if an organisation is willing to work for them. They expect to enter a workforce where their personal and professional development and growth are prioritised. Companies in Hong Kong with an authentic and proven history of solid D&I activities and policies immediately make themselves more attractive to this generation unwilling to compromise their values. In a market place crowded with traditional businesses that are often disappointingly silent on social issues, Hong Kong’s Gen Z are looking for companies willing to break the mold and show leadership. There are resources available to organisations to benchmark and assess their level of readiness for a new generation of people who are out at work. If your organisation is too small to have its own LGBT+ inclusion programme or employee network, consider aligning with other organisations or joining a coalition like Interbank, HKGALA or Lesbians in Finance. There are options available to large, medium and small companies. What Gen Z is making clear is that “doing nothing” is no longer an option.

About the Author: Adrienne Davis, Programme Manager, Community Business