Out and proud at work

Tim Cook's announcement 'paves the way' for other leaders

Apple CEO Tim Cook broke new ground recently when he announced, in a column he wrote, that he was proud to be gay. 

“I’ve come to realize that my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important,” he said in Bloomberg Businessweek. 
“If hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.”

It’s a “trailblazing action” by the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company, said Michael Bach, founder and CEO of the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion (CIDI) in Toronto.

“He’s an introvert, he’s a very shy person, so for him to do that was not only a personal challenge but the impact on the experiences of LGBT people was pretty significant,” said Bach.

“It’s the same when we look to women who have been in executive positions — we’re looking for a role model. We’re looking for an example to say, ‘Yes you can do this’ and the fact that an openly gay man is leading probably the most influential company on the planet is kind of a big deal.”

Cook has really paved the way for others to do the same, said Matt Petersen, chair of Pride at Work Canada in Toronto.

“For gay people themselves, seeing someone who is successful, who hasn’t had the world crash all around him as a result of a public announcement like that, creates a great role model example that they can do the same.”

Senior executive role models are key to organizations, to business and to the LGBT community itself, said Sue Black, group vice-president of global transformation at Sodexo in Singapore.

“Cook sent the message that ‘I am proud of being a gay man and the CEO of Apple and both aspects are a massive part of who I am.’ For people who are trying to see if they too can be successful as a member of the LGBT community, this kind of role modelling is critical. His message is about bringing your whole self to work and being proud of who you are and that you can be successful and bring real value to your colleagues and business by doing so.”

Black herself was not out at work for years and found it really self-limiting, she said.

“I wasted time and energy on creating a persona and, at the end of the day, when I eventually did come out to colleagues, I realized that it had really diverted energy that I could have directed towards many other things. For me, since that point, it is just about being myself in all aspects of my life — including work, which is an important part of my life.”

Reluctance to step up
So why are there so few openly gay leaders in the C-suite? Workplaces are competitive and some people are just not ready to introduce what they perceive to be another potential barrier to their career progress, said Black.

“Coming out can be a risk and requires courage. The fact that, these days, (businesses) invest in education, awareness and understanding the business case of inclusive workplaces and having more strong role models from the LGBT community will hopefully have a positive impact.”

While Canada has made tremendous progress around human rights protection, many people have come from generations where those protections weren’t in place, said Petersen, who is also senior director of diversity and inclusion at CIBC.

“The pipeline of people… to be considered for C-suite jobs very often has come up from generations where they’ve grown up seeing discrimination firsthand. And then, just recently, within the last 10 to 15 years, they knew that there was legislative protection but they haven’t necessarily experienced it so it’s entrenched in terms of their willingness to be open about who they are.”

From a talent management perspective, informal networks still really matter, he said.

“While there can be policies in place that prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender expression, people know in terms of how people are selected for jobs — networking, informal networks, relationships that are created — are important. And I think that there’s fear for people that if they bring their whole self to work and they disclose who they fully are, that could be a judgment that’s applied to them.”

There’s also the issue of personal life versus public life.

“It’s a very fine line for these public figures, executives, et cetera — when do you get to live your life and where does your job stop?” said Bach. 

And it’s very challenging to ask a person to come out in a world where the narrative is you should be straight, he said.

“There is still a level of shame and stigma around being LBGT that there has never been around being heterosexual-identified,” said Bach. “The onus, though, is still on the employer to ensure it is an environment where they can come out, and once they’ve done that, it’s up to the individual to say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to stick my head up and be out.’”

Employer supports
Canadian businesses need to do more to ensure LGBT employees feel welcome and valued in the workplace, according to a 2014 survey by Sodexo. Two-thirds of employees feel more can be done to welcome LGBT employees, while 81 per cent in the LGBT community feel businesses generally need to strive harder, found the survey of 1,090 employees.

It’s one thing to come out to your family but then you have to come out to your work colleagues and every single person you meet, whether that’s on a new team or with a new client, said Petersen.

“You’re constantly coming out to people,” he said. “(But) if you’re in an environment that’s made it known that LGBT are a vibrant part of our workforce and we absolutely embrace diversity and we include people from all backgrounds, it doesn’t feel like such an anxious conversation every time you do it.”

You don’t know what you don’t know and unless an organization puts up a sign and says, “Gays Welcome” and makes it clear it wants to hire people who are LGBT and creates that inclusive work environment, there’s a skepticism, said Bach.

“We sort of say, ‘Well, you know, I’m not going to put my neck out until I know,’” he said. “LGBT people are the masters of disguise — we spend most of our lives hiding — so we need a symbol, a sign and the rainbow flag, both literally and figuratively, is that sign that says, ‘This is a safe space for you, you don’t have to hide who you are.’”

Policies and practices should also be inclusive and people should be trained on inclusive language, said Bach. For example, instead of saying “husband” or “wife,” use “spouse” or “partner.”

“It’s really simple stuff, generally, but it’s important stuff because the default is straight and cisgendered… so we have to kind of not fall into the defaults.”

It’s about understanding and educating around the different dimensions of diversity and creating a clear business focus on expectations within the organization, said Black.

“Creating an environment of inclusion is... what is truly needed from business leaders to leverage diversity fully: The willingness and capacity to recognize, value and optimize the diversity of the  workforce, clients, customers, suppliers and partners,” she said.

“Organizations that do this and have strong role models from all backgrounds, including the LGBT community, really can be assured that the organization’s talent will develop — no matter what their background.”

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