BusinessMay 29, 2019

Box ticking: Are Rainbow Tick workplaces really safe for LGBTQI staff?


Companies are paying thousands for a Rainbow Tick to show their workplaces are safe for LGBTQI people. But does the certification really do what it purports to? Digital journalist Murphy reports for RNZ.

Kim sits in the car on her way in to work – she’s crying, she doesn’t want to go in. She woke up crying. The thought of another day at work was just too much.

Kim, a transgender woman, went back in the closet to get her job at a Fletcher Building subsidiary. A few years into the position, she changed branches and transitioned – from being seen as her assigned gender at birth to her actual gender. Kim says she knew coming out would be a struggle in the construction sector, but she had her manager’s full support.

In 2015, Fletcher Building became the first construction company to be awarded a Rainbow Tick, a diversity and inclusion certification designed to show that a workplace is “safe and welcoming” for LGBTQI people.

When Fletcher Building was awarded the certification, Rainbow Tick programme manager Michael Stevens said the tick sent a clear message from the leadership that the company was a safe place for employees to be themselves.

And for a while Kim felt she could be herself; she was a member of the company’s diversity and inclusion team and was involved in Fletcher Pride.

She saw the value of the Rainbow Tick, but she and other workmates wondered what would happen if the company didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. They asked Stevens if Fletchers dropped the ball, would it be held accountable?

“He said ‘yes’, but subsequent audits of our systems and processes really didn’t address the issues that several of us had.”

Kim says she told Stevens that not enough pressure was being put on the company to maintain the standards the tick required and that she felt Fletcher was being “let off the hook”.

After a couple of years, she says people stopped putting their hand up to be on the panel for the Rainbow Tick auditing process. Then Kim’s new manager started.

“He was very anti-LGBT,” Kim says.

“He didn’t think I should have been in a client-facing position … he did his darndest to remove me from places where I was more visible in the workplace.”

Kim says her manager didn’t want her on Fletcher’s pride committee, telling her it was a waste of time. But the new manager wasn’t the only person Kim struggled with at work; colleagues bullied her because of her gender identity. The impact this had on her mental health was immense. Kim contemplated suicide.

Struggling with the bullying, in what she describes as a “toxic work environment” Kim talked to HR, but she says they did nothing other than give her the number for an employee assistance programme. She contacted Rainbow Tick’s Michael Stevens again, this time about the bullying, but says by the time someone got back to her it was too late.

“I felt let down, I felt really let down actually. I wasn’t in the headspace at the time to be my own best advocate at all.”

Getty Images.

Discrimination in the workplace is illegal under the Human Rights Act. The Health and Safety at Work Act requires businesses to deal with reports of bullying quickly and appropriately.

So, what exactly is the Rainbow Tick, and what are workplaces required to do in order to get certified?

Rainbow Tick is a service that falls under the Ngāti Whātua organisation Kāhui Tū Kaha and contracted by Auckland District Health Board to provide liaison and training on the provision of services to LGBTQI communities. The organisation was founded by Michael Stevens and has three other staff, the most recent joining in 2018.

Every year, companies like Fletcher Building, and ratepayer funded organisations like Auckland Council and Auckland Transport, spend thousands of dollars to get a Rainbow Tick.

Details of the certification process and the standards that workplaces have to uphold are not publicly available, and Stevens was not available to speak to RNZ.

But the organisation’s website says the process looks at five areas; policy, staff training, staff engagement and organisational support, external engagement and monitoring.

The Rainbow Tick certification process as shown on the Rainbow Tick website before its recent refresh. Photo: Screenshot/Rainbow Tick

Each year a Rainbow Tick workplace is audited – and more money is paid – to see if it still meets the benchmarks. Stevens says no organisations have had their tick revoked.

Recently, Rainbow Tick organisations The Crusaders and NZ Rugby have been marred by controversy.

There are currently 60 companies and organisations with the certification, including banks, law firms, universities, media organisations, and some of the country’s most well-known large corporates like Coca Cola Amatil, Vodafone and Sky City. They’re the ones who you would have seen at Auckland’s Pride Parade this year had it gone ahead – the same ones that were quick to withdraw their support once police chose not to march.

Kim no longer works for Fletcher Building. During the height of the bullying, she says her manager was aware she was seeing a psychiatrist because she was having suicidal thoughts, but she says Fletcher Building took her through the process of a performance dismissal. She says every time she put a foot slightly wrong, management would pull her up. Consequently, she was in meetings every week.

Her old manager – the one who supported her when she transitioned – told Kim he thought she was going to be pushed out. “I think at one point when we were talking about things, he said ‘You’re screwed’.”

Kim says changes to management are one of the biggest problems for those trans people who are able to find a job: once management changes, and someone doesn’t like you, you’ll end up being forced out.

“I’ve had several redundancies.”

The Human Rights Commission Inquiry into Discrimination Experienced by Transgender People in 2008, confirmed that trans people face significant discrimination in day to day life. The majority of submissions about discrimination focused on employment.

Given the experience of stigmatisation and marginalisation, trans people seldom ask for assistance or complain about the treatment they receive, the report says. Rainbow Tick’s own survey of 40 of its organisations found that less than half of the gender diverse people surveyed felt comfortable about being open about their identity at work.

Data from a community-led health survey for trans and non-binary people living in New Zealand is due to be released later this year, but principal investigator Dr Jamie Veale says preliminary results show very high rates of mental health problems among participants with many experiencing discrimination and stigma in the workplace.

Kim’s story is a very common one, Ahi Wi-Hongi of Gender Minorities Aotearoa says. A high number of trans women in particular, contact the non-profit after they’ve experienced bullying in the workplace and have to leave.

“Sometimes they say that they have been pushed out of work and other times they say that it was just too stressful to stay so they decided to leave,” Wi-Hongi says, adding that often trans and gender non-conforming people are constructively dismissed because it’s not safe for them in the workplace.

A Rainbow Tick doesn’t necessarily mean a workplace isn’t discriminating against its staff, Wi-hongi says. While Wi-hongi thinks training that helps organisations understand their legal obligations is useful, they say the process certainly needs to be more than a pay-to-qualify exercise.

“The right people to be running training on gender diversity and upholding non-discrimination legislation in the workplace when it comes to trans people – are trans people.”

A resource of common terms available on the Rainbow Tick website before its relaunch this month contained Pākehā-centric, and in some cases inaccurate definitions, including one for transsexual: “This term is typically used today for a person who has had or is in the process of changing their body to conform with their gender identity [sic].” And Fa’afafine: “Fa’afafine are Samoan biological males who behave in a range of feminine-gendered ways.” In other areas of the old website, gender diverse people are referred to as transsexuals. Both of these definitions would be seen as offensive.

Wi-hongi says when a workplace has a Rainbow Tick, trans people expect it to be safe.

“Ensuring that all of your employees are safe, it’s ongoing work, and it takes more than just doing a workshop with a business that you pay to get their approval.”

Information obtained by RNZ under the Official Information Act shows that the cost and uptake of training by Rainbow Tick organisations, as a requirement for the certification, varies widely.

One employee of a Rainbow Tick certified company, who RNZ has agreed not to name, says the training offered to her workplace was an “old-fashioned” half-hour voluntary online module, and a 1.5 hour voluntary in-person Rainbow Tick leadership training course.

She provided RNZ with screenshots of sections of the online module.

Part of the Rainbow Tick training module. (Screenshot/Supplied to RNZ.)

Of the 60 Rainbow Tick certified organisations, six are subject to the Official Information Act. These include Auckland Council, which has paid $21,000 since 2016 to Rainbow Tick for its certification and assessment via focus groups. In mid-2018, only 22 of its staff had received rainbow diversity training provided by Rainbow Tick; all of them had participated in the voluntary focus groups. The council had 11,226 staff members, meaning less than 0.2% of staff had any training.

Meanwhile, council-controlled organisation Auckland Transport has had the tick since September 2018, at a cost of $8500. The online training module (seen above) is available to employees and the organisation says it has committed to two training sessions this year; when the sessions will happen, and the number of people who will attend them, remains unclear.

Since 2016, The Human Rights Commission has paid $3,000 to Rainbow Tick. In the three years the Commission has held the certification, no training or workshops provided by Rainbow Tick have taken place.

Part of the Rainbow Tick training module (Screenshot/Supplied to RNZ)

AUT wouldn’t release the amount of money it has spent on the Rainbow Tick certification, citing a confidentiality agreement. The university was awarded the tick in 2014 and offers employees the voluntary online module (above) and a one-day voluntary Rainbow Tick workshop which is described as a guided conversation. It is unclear how many people have done any of the voluntary training.

Otago University was certified in December 2018, and seven training sessions were provided by Rainbow Tick, attended by 84 people in leadership roles. It would not release the costs involved. The university had 4080 academic, research and professional staff members in 2018.

Since Massey University was certified in 2016 the university has paid $20,700 to Rainbow Tick. Training provided by Rainbow Tick was attended by 326 staff and managers in 2017 and 2018. The university had 3269 staff members in 2018.

Part of the Rainbow Tick training module (Screenshot/Supplied to RNZ)

A Fletcher Building employee, who Stuff reported was severely bullied at the company for nearly a year, was recently awarded the Rainbow Tick Ambassador Award and held up as an example of someone who overcame bullying at the construction company. It took almost six months from the time he first raised the issue with management for a solution to be found. But not all cases of bullying have an award-winning ending.

Grace* left Placemakers, the retail trading arm of Fletcher Building, late last year after the bullying became too much. She says bullying of LGBTQI staff members was frequent at Placemakers and much of the negativity came from a core group of people. “There was a lot of tranny jokes, a lot of she-male jokes, words like homo and fag were said on a daily basis from both customers and staff members.”

Grace knew of half a dozen other queer and trans people at Placemakers who stayed closeted because of concerns for their safety. “There was a general acceptance among those members of staff that coming out would lead to harassment from fellow staff and customers, and that coming out would more than likely lead to dismissal, either directly or from the management team finding any reason to dismiss that person.”

She raised these issues of homophobia and transphobia with workmates but was told that was just how things were, and always have been, in the building industry. Management were aware of what was going on, but ambivalent, she says. “I don’t think there was a single day where I did not hear at least one member of staff make fun of the LGBTI community, often from people in management roles.”

The 2018 Wellington Pride Parade ( Photo: RNZ/ Reesh Lyon)

Both Kim and Grace feel as though the subsidiary businesses of Fletchers aren’t held to the same standard as its corporate arm, and that they are left to fend for themselves.

When Grace applied for leave to go to the Pride Parade, she heard from a colleague that when her request was seen by a supervisor, it was immediately thrown out. When the supervisor was asked why, they said they thought it was a practical joke. “It took some convincing for this manager to get him to understand that this was part of my identity and something that should not be joked about.”

Grace was openly bisexual at work but felt her safety would be at risk if anyone found out she is transgender. Like Kim, the bullying led her to consider suicide and she attempted to take her life twice during the time she worked at Placemakers.

“I took all of my sick leave within the first six months, I often, after that, would take leave without pay, simply because getting up in the morning, it was too much to deal with. It was the feeling of; ‘I’m going into an environment where I’m going to feel unsafe and I’m going to feel judged and having to hide who I am to my fellow staff and to my managers’.”

As much as she tried to block it out, and remind herself that the world is still learning, she was disheartened. “The people that I worked with a lot of the time are six foot and over and very, very burly guys and there was a serious risk of physical harassment. We as a [trans] community tend to stay away from construction industries and traditionally conservative industries for this reason.”

Grace says if she was still at Placemakers, she’d still be in the closet. “I think most LGBT people at Placemakers, there’s an understanding there that if you’re going to come out that also comes with a letter of resignation.”

A spokesperson for Fletcher Building says: “We work hard to build a genuinely inclusive, diverse and supportive workplace for all of our people and we take issues with respect to employee wellbeing and conduct very seriously. While we can’t comment on individual cases, homophobic or bullying behaviour is not tolerated at Fletcher Building.”

Russell McVeagh was certified with a Rainbow Tick while Jess* was working at the law firm in 2016. “Everyone knew it was bullshit. They got everyone to come up to the room on the client’s floor and have fancy little nibbles – rainbow coloured nibbles – and do a little like ‘here’s your certificate with the Rainbow Tick’.”

Harassment in the workplace meant Russell McVeagh was probably the worst place she’s worked, she says.

On one occasion Jess says a colleague was discussing how she would never wear a suit to work because she’s “not a dyke”. She then turned around and looked directly at Jess.

Another time Jess called a colleague out for referring to people as ‘trannies’ or ‘boy-girls’ and making jokes about transgender people. Eventually someone went to the manager with their concerns about this type of behaviour but was told it wasn’t the manager’s problem, she says.

Jess says in an environment like Russell McVeagh, people down play their ‘queerness’.

“[You] don’t talk about stuff that’s going to invite people to comment on your sexuality or treat it as a novelty.”

The Rainbow Tick felt like nothing more than a branding exercise, she says.

“It wasn’t really meaningful, maybe they did some workshops, but I don’t think having a rainbow friendly workplace is about having some workshops with a few staff, once. It’s an ongoing thing.

“I think the Rainbow Tick is a total farce.”

Russell McVeagh chief executive Jo Avenell says the firm is concerned to hear about the issues Jess had. Rainbow Tick workshops were offered to all staff on a voluntary basis, she says. “We achieved Rainbow Tick accreditation in 2016 and have since been re-audited as part of their process. The feedback has been very positive, and our recent audit recognised that we are making positive improvement in terms of creating a more inclusive culture.”

Lawyer Graeme Edgeler believes the Rainbow Tick, much like an SPCA or Heart Foundation Tick, is nothing more than a marketing exercise. “Somebody saw an opportunity to make some money by giving credence to a claim. The companies that are paying money think they will make more money if they’re got it than if they don’t.”

He says all employees are protected under the law regardless of whether their workplace has a Rainbow Tick. “Everyone is entitled not to be discriminated in employment and that includes on the basis of gender or sexuality, everyone’s entitled to have fair processes at work.”

Rainbow Tick was not available for an interview before publication citing “operational reasons”. In an email, Michael Stevens said Rainbow Tick does not comment publicly on individual client organisations.

Regarding Kim’s story, Stevens wrote: “We do keep track of incidents reported to us but do not have a record of this request for support in this matter.”


Kim says there weren’t a lot of people at Fletcher Building putting their hand up and saying they were part of the LGBTQI communities. Since leaving the company she has found work at a business in her local area. They don’t feel they need the Rainbow Tick to be a supportive workplace, she says, “they just get on with it”.

*Some names in this article have been changed at the request of the source due to safety concerns.

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