Lessons from UN Cares in LGBTI inclusion in the workforce

Participants at a UN Cares workshop. Photo by: Dan Onyango Maina

UN Cares is the United Nations system-wide workplace program setup to provide information, learning opportunities and treatment to U.N. personnel and their families impacted by HIV. The program also works to ensure a supportive and respectful work environment as outlined by the 10 Minimum Standards for the U.N. system workplace. In recent years however, UN Cares has expanded its focus to also address the rights of LGBTI people working within the UN system.

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Laurie Newell, global coordinator for UN Cares at the U.N. Population Fund, explains that while the early work of the program focused on ending HIV-related stigma and discrimination in the U.N. workplace, it was clear that there were many cases where the stigma was related to the modes of HIV transmission.

Over the years, Newell says she had people coming to her describing the U.N. as a “really homophobic place to work” and asking if there was something that UN Cares could do about it. While it wasn’t something within their mandate, Newell’s response was that it was something that UN Cares should consider. So after a survey and meetings with the stakeholders, including approximately 1,000 U.N. personnel who implement UN Cares at a country level, it was agreed that there was motivation to support the rights of LGBTI colleagues and that “UN Cares would move in this direction,” explains Newell.

The key to success

Following the decision to focus on LGBTI rights, UN Cares launched its new initiative in 2015 and rolled out workshops, which aimed “to help people build empathy with those who may be different from themselves,” says Newell. The workshops, which address several different themes, use highly interactive methods to encourage participants to reflect on their own experiences and share the stories of colleagues — where possible, a member of the LGBTI community is present to speak to the workshop in person or through video. This is about “walking the talk” explains Newell and “helping the United Nations to become a model workplace — to fully embody the principles it stands for — when it comes to inclusion.”  

“We're ‘putting a face to the issue’ in a way that is very powerful for participants.”

— Laurie Newell, global coordinator for UN Cares at UNFPA

Approximately 5,000 U.N. personnel across 50 countries have so far participated in UN Cares workshops on the core module — human rights — or the LGBTI module, or both, and over 300 U.N. staff have been trained to facilitate these. And while a comprehensive assessment of the LGBTI workshops has not yet been carried out, Newell has received positive feedback. Not only have staff expressed that they feel better supported and represented in the workforce, some participants have admitted that the workshops were influential in changing their minds on issues raised. Newell describes these workshops as “clarifying the organization's expectation of its personnel — we're ‘putting a face to the issue’ in a way that is very powerful for participants.”

“We're helping people think about how the issues of disability, substance use, mental health and sexual orientation and gender identity impact their own lives,” says Newell. Then “they can build empathy and understand that colleagues stigmatized for these reasons — people labeled as the ‘other’ — are most importantly colleagues and fellow humans, like everyone else.”

The program is garnering respect outside of the U.N. system as well. The initiative was given the “Innovation in Talent Management” award as voted by human resource professionals across the international public sector at the annual Career Development Roundtable in Helsinki last December.

Tips for other organizations in supporting LGBTI people in the workplace

To borrow language from the SDGs, “We can ‘leave no one behind,’” and that means “starting in-house.”

— Laurie Newell, global coordinator for UN Cares at UNFPA

Individuals and organizations, large and small, can do their part to ensure that LGBTI staff feel included, supported and happy in the workforce. To create real change, Newell emphasizes the importance of engaging the most senior leaders. These are the people that can put the message out there and highlight what the organization expects “in terms of building an inclusive workplace of dignity, fairness and respect, including LBGTI colleagues,” says Newell.

Engaging the in-house network of LGBTI colleagues is also important advises Newell — by listening to them you can better understand their needs and learn from them what is going on and how it impacts their lives and work. You can also ask to share their experiences with others, anonymizing stories where necessary, she adds. Finally, if your organization works in the area of human rights or the Sustainable Development Goals, you should “align the purpose of your initiative to the larger goal of the organization,” says Newell — to borrow language from the SDGs, “We can ‘leave no one behind,’” and that means “starting in-house.”

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About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.