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Celebrating 25 years of LGBTQ-friendliness: Ford’s headquarters in the north of Cologne, Photo: © Ford

Out in the office

created by Christian Werthschulte | |   urban culture

Cologne’s biggest employers are flying the flag for LGBTIQ and diversity to increase their appeal to new recruits

At supermarket chain Rewe, it all began with an e-mail in BCC – sent by Frank Bartels after Cologne’s Christopher Street Day in 2013. A Rewe supermarket in Cologne had its own float in the LGBT parade through the city. “After that I received a few messages asking why we, as the parent company, didn’t have our own float,” says Bartels, who works in travel and event management at the Rewe Group. “So I sent out an e-mail to around ten colleagues I knew were gay.” A few weeks later, 25 people met up at a café near Eigelstein in the north of the city. These were the beginnings of Different Together (, Rewe’s network for gay and lesbian employees.

Many major companies in Cologne now have networks like, usually part of a diversity concept that includes sexual diversity. The aim behind this is to support LGBTIQ* employees in their everyday working lives, to advise them in matters like coming out and – of course – to organise participation in the CSD parade.

The importance of this should not be underestimated. Together with his team, Cologne psychologist Dominic Frohn regularly examines the working conditions of LGBT* employees. They all report personal experiences of discrimination, some of which even occur in the workplace. And according to Frohn’s study “Out in the Office”, there hasn’t been much too progress over the years. But one thing that has changed is how openly the employees deal with their sexuality. Of the employees surveyed, 30.6 percent of gay and lesbian respondents hadn’t “come out” at work, compared with 55.5 percent of bisexual and as many as 70 percent of trans* respondents.

 Changing this is first and foremost the responsibility of the company itself, Frohn’s study finds: “The friendlier LGBT* people perceive a corporate culture to be, the more open they will be about their sexual or gender identity.” And this, in turn, has a direct impact on their work. Employees who are open about their sexual identity suffer less from psycho­somatic disorders and don’t have to waste energy on keeping their identity a secret. Frohn even claims that it makes them more productive. And they will also be more satisfied with their work and feel a stronger connection with their company than those who are unable to speak openly about their sexuality. “I have always been out in my office,” says Rewe’s Frank Bartels, “but I had never felt the need to officially network with others in the company”. But on noticing at the first meeting that many of his homosexual ­colleagues were not able to be as open as him in the workplace, he recognised the need for a network. “And after we set one up, a number of colleagues also came out to their fellow team members.”

This whole process started even earlier at Ford. The employee network “Gay Lesbian Or Bisexual Employees” (GLOBE) has existed in Cologne for 25 years now. “GLOBE is one of our biggest employee networks,” says Ford spokesperson Ute Mundolf. Every network at Ford has what is known as a sponsor; in the case of GLOBE it is the European Board for Human Resources. “All sponsors are quite high up in the hierarchy,” says Mundolf. “This means that matters can easily be discussed through the official channels.” Mundorf emphasises that these networks are helping Ford to benefit directly from the expertise of its workforce. “Insight from the networks is extremely important to us,” she says. Long before Germany introduced its General Equal Treatment Act, the company decided also to cover the relocation costs for transfers abroad in the case of same-sex partners, even if in the eyes of the law they technically didn’t have the same rights as a spouse.

As an international company, Ford is also represented in countries in which legislation discriminates more against LGBTIQ people than is the case in Germany. “We need to abide by the laws in force in those countries,” says Ute Mundolf. “But that doesn’t change anything about the high regard we have for our LGBT employees within the company itself.” The Rewe corporation is even active in Poland and Hungary, both countries which are now facing the threat of EU sanctions because of their anti-LGBT laws. But the ­Cologne headquarters are staying tight-lipped about the subject. “We haven’t had any requests from either country,” says Frank Bartels.

 In Germany, however, the network has already shown positive results. “The mere fact that we exist has made the Rewe Group move with the times,” says Bartels. Before that, many colleagues would even avoid saying the word “gay”: “But fortunately that has changed,” he says. is meanwhile active in all six regions of Rewe Germany, with two spokespersons in each of them. But new questions keep cropping up all the time: about a third gender, gender-neutral language, trans* identity and so on. “I’m still learning too,” says Bartels. Ford has transgender employees and insurance giant AXA even tells a gender reassignment story on its company website: about Leonora Friese, who outed herself as a woman after working at the company for 24 years. “It was all very low key,” says AXA spokesperson Christiane Pabelick. “Leonora has been extremely open about the whole thing since she started her transition, and this has been met with a very positive response.”

AXA actively recruits staff with its diversity strategy, is represented at the LGBT career trade fair Sticks & Stones and, like Rewe, is also a supporter of the Prout at Work initiative. “In the applications we receive, applicants tell us that our commitment is getting noticed,” says Christiane Pabelick. Ute Mundolf also says that Ford’s image as an LGBT-friendly company is met with positive interest among potential employees. And at the Rewe Group, has even started the ball rolling with a marketing activity: “In 2015, in the middle of the refugee crisis, we handed out the first rainbow stickers in 3,300 supermarkets,” says Frank Bartels. And many of Rewe’s branches now also fly the rainbow flag during Pride Week. 

(by Christian Werthschulte)