SMEs urged to promote honest conversations and support ahead of marriage equality plebiscite

The Coalition’s pledge to put the question of marriage equality to the Australian people by year’s end has prompted calls for small and medium businesses to consider how they can create a supportive and inclusive environment for staff and customers in the face of a potentially inflammatory debate.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed this week that should the federal government be unable to pass legislation for a full plebiscite on changing the definition of marriage, a postal plebiscite will be held on the issue in November.

The small business community has consistently highlighted that opening marriage up to couples other than opposite-gender partners would see billions of dollars flow into the local wedding industry.

However, some business owners believe the notion of marriage equality as simply being an opportunity for companies to make more money is a tired argument, and SMEs should be aiming for honest conversations with the LGBTIQ+ community.

Melbourne-based marriage celebrant Bronte Price says same-sex marriage celebrations currently make up a “minority” of the work he performs, but he has seen a recent increase in enquiries from same-sex couples.

I’ve had an upsurge in enquiries from same sex couples — and there’s a proportion of the LGBTI community who are just saying, ‘stuff it’,” Price says. 

He believes Australia’s slow movement on the issue has no doubt caused an “opportunity cost” for businesses, but says he gets offended by some conversations he hears from wedding suppliers about banking more business once the laws are changed.

It’s going to be about much more than putting a little rainbow on your website. If you have no connection to the community, if you don’t understand the difference between straight, gay, and lesbian weddings, then you’re probably not going to be in the market,” he observes. 

An openly gay civil celebrant, Price says other business operators really need to be educating themselves about things like language and inclusivity if they want business from the LGBTI community.

Be inclusive — if all your photos on your website are of straight couples, we will flick elsewhere, straight away. For people who simply say, ‘I support marriage equality’- well, how?” he asks. 

Support staff, and each other

SMEs shouldn’t just be thinking about how they communicate with customers; the marriage equality debate has the potential to become inflammatory, and members of the small business community say supporting staff through these debates is critical.

SMEs are uniquely placed to support their teams and show inclusivity around this and other diversity conversations, says Council of Small Business Australia chief executive Peter Strong.

“This is about asking what can staff do for each other, and for the owner of a business,” Strong says. 

Mental health is a key priority for the small business community, and Strong urges businesses to think about the kinds of conversations that suit their business to make sure staff feel supported at work.

“It’s all in knowing your team. For some teams this might mean being low key in discussing these things, with others maybe not. It might be: ‘let’s talk about this over morning tea, or whatever’,” he says.

Leadership expert Pollyanna Lenkic says when discussing issues like marriage equality at work, unconscious bias or ideas can have a negative impact on individual team members.

She advises all business owners and staff to reflect on their own beliefs and ask whether their behaviours actually match those beliefs.

“We know teams perform better when there’s diversity within that team,” says Lenkic.

But sometimes team members act in ways that can make others feel excluded or uncomfortable, and even if this might not be intentional, leaders must make it clear that it is unacceptable. 

“Intention is no place to hide — everybody hides behind intention. So review how your intentions are either matching, or mismatching, your impact,” she says.

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