“We live diversity.” Elke Heitmüller, Head of Volkswagen’s Diversity Department, and two of the organizers of the “we drive proud” network, Thore Masekowitz and John Frattoloso, explain how Volkswagen employees at all levels, including the Board of Management, make this a reality.
After a raid at the Stonewall Inn bar in New York’s Christopher Street, the LGTB movement was formed to openly defend the rights of lesbians, gays, transgenders and bisexuals. That was 50-years ago. This year, Volkswagen is taking part in Christopher Street Day in Berlin for the first time with its own parade truck – and is thus taking a clear stand for diversity and against discrimination. “We live diversity” is one of the Group’s principles because it is an integral part of Volkswagen’s corporate culture.
What is Volkswagen’s general position on LGBT?
Elke Heitmüller: I have the feeling that a knot has been broken and everyone is open regarding the topic. It is very important that all employees feel valued and that any prejudices are overcome. One of the company’s principles is: “We live diversity”. This means not only treating each other with respect, but also using diversity for the benefit of the company. This makes everyone who works here more loyal and also increases their performance. Ultimately, this benefits everyone, the company and above all the customers.
What’s the significance?
It is important for the company that employees are able to show their identity openly – for example, openly talking about their experiences from the weekend, instead of dealing with the question of “how do I have to portray myself?”. If everyone can freely develop, we can make great products together. And nobody has to waste any more energy by hiding.
Elke Heitmüller: “The question ‘What does the customer want?’ is also important. We want all employees in the company to be sensitive to all customers, regardless of their origin, skin color, gender or sexual orientation. We do this not only because of our entrepreneurial success, but because we value all our customers. With diversity management, we promote diversity in the workforce and raise awareness of the added value. This begins with research and development and ends with after-sales. Satisfying the customer works best when all employees, with their different experiences and approaches, work creatively on innovative solutions. However, this is only possible if the working atmosphere is characterized by respect and appreciation. If the working environment is right in this respect, then we are also addressing the intelligent minds that we want to attract to the company as employees.
How many Volkswagen employees acknowledge their non-heterosexual identity?
Thore Masekowitz: We don’t know the exact number. Because sexual orientation is not recorded, unlike, for example, nationality. But studies assume a seven percent share of the total population. Volkswagen AG employs around 110,000 people in Germany. If you take this as a basis, it means that there are several thousand people working for Volkswagen who are gay, lesbian or bisexual or who otherwise feel they belong to the LGBT* community.
Since March Volkswagen has had the LGBT* and friends network (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) “we drive proud”. How did it come about?
The foundation of the LGBT*and friends network was initiated by Diversity Management together with various employees of Volkswagen AG and Digital:Lab. We are currently responsible for planning the network, taking care of administrative tasks and supporting the members in the initial stages of network tasks until it takes control itself.
Elke Heitmüller: In addition, the Wolfsburg Circle, has been in existence and dealing with LGBT-issues within the company, for quite some time. I discussed with one of the top managers, Thomas Meiers, at the Diversity Conference of the Diversity Charter – hosted in Berlin, in November 2018, by the Tagesspiegel – about launching a LGBT* initiative: each should invite seven people whom we ask what they think we can do for them. The idea was to strengthen employee networks. During the interview, we sensed whether the employees were interested. More than 30 people attended the meeting.
Why does Volkswagen need an LGBT* network?
Elke Heitmüller: At Volkswagen, as in any other company, there are certain standards that are career-relevant. Like elsewhere, some employees ask themselves whether they can still pursue a career to the same level – if they come out – if nobody knew. As long as this is the situation, there is still a need for action. By supporting the network, we show that we as a company stand behind the topic and promote openness to the world and appreciation.
A study by the Boston Consulting Group showed that many lesbian, homosexual, bisexual or transsexual workers don’t wish to come-out, at their workplace. Have employees talked to you about how they feel at Volkswagen?
At the founding meeting of the network, many employees told very personal stories. We have some gay or lesbian couples in the network, both of whom work for Volkswagen. When they came-out, they mostly received positive reactions.
Thore Masekowitz: The colleagues who came to the meetings, however, have already cleared the first hurdle by coming. In the immediate environment they find an open approach, but every person who came knew colleagues who did not dare to come-out.
Is the network only open to employees in Wolfsburg?
Thore Masekowitz: The network sees itself as an open group-wide network. We exchange ideas with existing networks, such as Audi or Porsche. But some smaller units don’t have their own networks. We also want to offer them a “home” or encourage them to participate in the network.
What kind of actions does the network take?
We meet regularly and have founded a closed group on the intranet where we exchange information with each other. We want to be a safe haven for everyone who feels part of the LGBT* community or wants to support this topic. We consciously call this group “LGBT* and friends”. Because with allies one can advance one’s own goals better. We still have some points on our to-do list to work through: Explain what LGBT* means and build a company-wide network that enables us to find friction points in the company and work on them in a targeted manner.
John Frattoloso: The participation at the Christopher Street Day (CSD) in Berlin in July 2019 is the first big action that the network has realized. In 2020 we want to be back in Berlin while also taking part in CSD parades in other cities. In addition, we want to participate in job fairs that are aimed specifically at employees who feel LGTB*-affiliated. It would be great if Volkswagen had a stand there and communicated openly: “You are welcome here”.
What role do diversity issues play in the training of Volkswagen executives?
This is now playing a major role: in compulsory training courses, we show our managers how important it is to ensure a respectful working environment in which every employee can develop regardless of his or her orientation.
Thore Masekowitz: We have designed a multi-level awareness training to sensitize all our managers to possible unconscious prejudices. We are now beginning to implement this worldwide.
Are you not afraid of positioning yourself politically too prominently by participating in the CSD event?
Elke Heitmüller: Investment in participating at the CSD event is important. For the “we drive proud” network, it means a lot that the company is flying the flag. Thanks to the commitment and clear support of the Board of Management, other employees are also courageous enough to push things forward in the spirit of cultural change at Volkswagen. We want to show: We now have a new “drive” and a great deal can be done.
*LGBT is an abbreviation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender from the English language area.