Pinkwashing and the rumble of tumble dryers

My job revolves around the big three elements of human resources, corporate responsibility and communications. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence, I would describe it as tireless work to promote responsible management and working culture, ethical operating policies and transparent communications. Short and sweet, but weighty – these themes contain the full colour spectrum of working life.

For a few years already, my company Varma has celebrated the Pride week by hanging a large banner on the outside of the main office. The banner is rainbow-coloured and says, “For equal working life”.

Why this banner? Because it represents the heart and soul of Varma’s CSR policy: supporting work ability and promoting good working life, ethical operations, transparent communications and carrying our responsibility over everyone who works for us. Corporate social responsibility only begins where legal obligations end, and companies are encouraged to use their more influential position to speak up for big issues. At the same time, they are advised to maintain a balance by keeping things on the everyday scale and relatable while also avoiding preaching and greenwashing.

So, the banner represents our choice to speak up for a big issue: supporting personal freedom in working life. If this isn’t human and relatable on an everyday level, I don’t know what is. And it isn’t a marketing spin or limited to one week a year – we take practical action beyond symbolism to promote equal working life through active dialogue, attention and training.

Naturally we thought that the banner’s message was well-justified and communicated our commitment to improving Finnish working life. Genuine and heart-felt; nothing to ruffle anyone’s feathers. Wrong! Before the Pride week was even halfway through, my social media and e-mail were filling to the brim with vile and disparaging messages that even crossed the line into personal insults and threats.

I was disappointed, even slightly hurt, and almost felt like a washed-out rag thrown around in a tumble dryer. Would it be better to take down all the banners and repurpose the Pride flags into (reusable) shopping bags? Just let it be and hope someone else takes care of it all? It would be easier, sure – but would anything change?

We need to remind ourselves of the reasons for making a stand in the first place. Aside from the obvious humane perspective, investing in diversity benefits the entire organisation and is thus at the very centre of all HR, CSR and communications activity. Researched evidence shows that diverse organisations perform better – and yes, I am also talking about financial performance. Diversity influences employee experience and, in turn, improves the quality of customer service. What is more, letting employees be their own selves significantly improves workplace well-being and work ability.

Finland has an unbalanced dependency ratio – there are more people to provide for (children, the aged and disabled) than people at work. We need to build pathways that include and involve as many people as possible in the complexity that working life and economic development comprise. I think of those with partial working ability, all the different generations, the sexual and gender minorities, the diverse backgrounds, and the super achievers whose strength finally ran out. The fine-grained diversity of individual identities is reflected in occupations and professions, personal relationships, and values. These are the dimensions that must be made more visible in workplaces. Continuing gainful employment until the age of 70 is too much to ask if being at work involves constant stress and conflict with one’s personal values. Being appreciated allows people to thrive, supporting further growth and development.

My strongest pillar of support in this tumult and tumble have been my fellow Varma employees, my companions in seeking out better understanding of diversity and equality. We only began our journey four years ago but have come a long way since. The rubbish in my email means nothing to me now: when I see the rainbow flags raised in front of our office, I feel nothing but pride. Survey data also encourages us, telling us that equality at Varma has been steadily getting better. We are not there yet, but we are well on the way, together.

You are free to hate catchphrases and slogans, but you mustn’t leave important things undone. Participation is everyone’s responsibility. Do what is right, not what is easy.

This column is part of a series where Finance Finland member companies talk about responsibility in the financial sector.