Safety vs. solidarity | Virgin Atlantic's inclusive uniforms ban for Qatar flight was unenviable

Virgin Atlantic's inclusive uniforms ban for Qatar flight was unenviable

Virgin Atlantic’s decision to suspend its gender-neutral uniforms on a flight taking England’s World Cup squad to Qatar has sparked a debate about the firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The airline flew the England men’s football team to the World Cup host nation this week, reportedly on board a plane specifically named Rain Bow as a symbol of LGBT+ pride.

On first appearance, this was not an unfamiliar move for Virgin Atlantic. The company had announced in September that its crew, pilots and ground team could choose which of its iconic uniforms (previously red suits & skirts for females and burgundy suits for males) best represents them – no matter their gender, gender identity, or gender expression. The announcement was part of an on-going drive to champion the individuality of its people and customers and is complemented by the roll out of optional pronoun badges for all its people.

However, crew on board the plane transporting the Three Lions did not partake in this gender-neutral uniform policy, after bosses cited safety concerns. Homosexuality is illegal under Qatari law, and there have been concerns about the potential country's treatment of LGBTQ+ tourists attending the tournament.

In a statement, Virgin Atlantic said: "We're proud our leading Gender Identity Policy allows our people to express themselves through uniform choice.

"Following a risk assessment, it was recommended the policy was not applied on today's charter flight to ensure the safety of our people."

Qatari officials have remained steadfast in their assurances that fans will be safe visiting the country. Nasser Al Khater, the chief executive of the tournament, told CNN in 2021: "Nobody feels threatened here, nobody feels unsafe. The notion that people don't feel safe here is untrue. I've said this before and I say this to you again, everybody is welcome here... everybody will feel safe here.

"Qatar is a tolerant country. It's a welcoming country, it's a hospitable country."

Al Khater has also previously said that LGBT+ fans coming into the country would not have to worry about "persecution of any sort".

However, the news has understandably sparked debate about the company’s commitment to diversity & inclusion.

Reacting to the news online, one LinkedIn user wrote: “...something is better than nothing. Virgin cannot change the world in one step, the Rain Bow image on the plane conveys a strong message but equally Virgin has to be mindful of the safety of its staff. Yes it's a compromise but it still sends a message. Small steps still move us forward. I think Virgin has still been brave and congratulate them for it.”

But in response, another comment read: “I agree that small steps will take us forward. But that is some distance to how Virgin went with their marketing campaign - very big splash.

“And when faced with a great opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to inclusion they turned their backs on it, silently.”

Alexander Leon, an LGBT+ activist, said Virgin Atlantic had demonstrated ‘performative allyship’ and that the decision was “a perfect example of why the queer community is becoming more and more suspicious of brands strategically aligning themselves with the community over Pride.”

Leon wrote: “Big budget campaign by Virgin Atlantic earlier this year about gender neutral uniforms - great! wonderful! But it turns out that when it actually counts - i.e. on a flight to Qatar where LGBTQ+ individuals are criminalised - then all of a sudden the policy is scaled back.

“This is called performative allyship. And we don't want it. We want meaningful allyship backed up by meaningful action. If you align yourselves with us in July only to shed yourselves of us come November, we're not interested in your support!”

Another person wrote: “’s a dilemma, one side wants to be diverse and inclusive.. the other wants to protect staff from potential risks as you deal with different cultures and laws. Such is life... you can’t always win.”

Criticism is ‘over the top’

However, a UK-based communications worker who has previously lived in Qatar, and worked with several LGBT+ colleagues, feels the media’s criticism of Qatar’s laws is rooted in fear-mongering and hypocrisy.

Speaking exclusively to HR Grapevine, the worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “When I lived in Qatar, I had plenty of gay friends at work, or who I went drinking with regularly, and none of them ever had any trouble. Also something to think about is that with its human rights record, the UK doesn't deserve the World Cup anymore than Qatar, nor does the US, nor Japan (which hosted the tournament alongside South Korea in 2002), which just passed, yet again, this year, an act to keep gay marriage illegal.

“Do the Khaleej states need to work on their labour laws and human rights? Yes. Are they even 1/4 as bad as most uninformed Brits who have never been there think it is? No. And lastly, one of the fastest ways for human rights in a country to improve is for a large, international event to be held there.”

They added: “The thing is, there is plenty that Khaleej states need to work on. But the misunderstanding and exaggeration of gay rights, women's rights, etc. there is just so over the top. Qatar would be far more justified boycotting a world cup in the UK due to the Rwanda fiasco and our worldwide human rights abuses.”

Why diversity & inclusion are must-haves for HR

Virgin Atlantic’s announcement comes as research - conducted by 3Gem on behalf of the airline - finds that enabling employees to express their true selves at work boosts happiness (65%), increases mental wellbeing (49%), creates a more positive workplace culture (36%) and provides a better experience for customers (24%). Employees also reported feeling more accepted and comfortable when able to be their true selves at work (26%) and an increased sense of loyalty to their employer (21%).

Despite these positive benefits, 25% of Brits have felt pressure to hide their true selves at work, with 13% feeling uncomfortable making requests that enable them to express who they really are. Brits have dressed differently (30%) or in clothing they aren’t comfortable in (15%), changed the way they style their hair or makeup (22%) and covered up parts of their personality (38%) all in an attempt to fit in.

Furthermore, 2019 data from Limeade Institute found that, when employees feel included at work, they are 28% more engaged and three times more likely to stay within the organisation.

Inclusivity can also have an impact on productivity. If employees are included at work and free to be themselves, then it is possible that they will feel happier. And, according to joint research from BT and Oxford University's Saïd Business School, workers are 13% more productive when happy.

Additionally, an inclusive working environment can also help with an organisation’s recruitment and attraction strategy. For example, a Deloitte study recently found that 80% of more than 1,300 respondents said that inclusion efforts were a crucial factor for them when choosing a company.

Therefore, there are quite a few benefits on a business level when it comes to championing diversity and inclusivity by relaxing gender-restrictive policies.

An unenviable predicament for HR

This was always going to be a decision which put Virgin Atlantic in an unwinnable situation. On one hand, this move has been seen by many as a betrayal of the company’s LGBT+ workers at a time when the company had an opportunity to make its commitment to D&I more visible than ever, on the world stage.

But on the other hand, it is argued that this decision showed the company genuinely cares about keeping its LGBT+ staff safe. While some former Qatar residents say the country’s enforcement of anti-LGBT+ laws is exaggerated, the airline clearly felt that this increased spotlight had the potential to put staff at risk.

A lose-lose situation, it would seem, but hopefully one that doesn’t deter employees from feeling comfortable about expressing themselves at work.

Image - ©2022 Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd.

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Comments (1)

  • Alessandro
    Thu, 17 Nov 2022 12:14pm GMT
    I think this is such a missed opportunity to show true inclusion.
    I completely agree with the performative allyship comment.
    I'd also like to remind everyone that gender inclusive uniforms have nothing to do with homosexuality as such so I really don't see the connection between Virgin Atlantic stopping their crew from using gender inclusive uniforms and their claim this was done for people's safety. Qatar, as many other countries across the world, criminalise "homosexual acts" not gender expression or the choice of clothing we wear. So, once again, safety is a very poor excuse in my opinion. Also, surely that choice should be left to each individual crew member, rather than being unilaterally taken away from them.

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