As topics surround Diversity & Inclusion are – quite rightly – thrust into focus during National Inclusion Week, the culture of working environments takes its seat in the spotlight. With the UK business landscape as rich and varied as it is, it would be fair to say that some sectors are known for fostering more conventional values than others, almost certainly to the detriment of marginalised groups.
However, things are far improved from what they were even 20 years ago, and continue to improve, as IoD member Darren Rickards, Managing Director of Corporate Banking CEEMEA, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, explains here in this personal account.
When you ask someone their most momentous career moment, they often reflect back to where their professional journey began, before referring to a point at the start of their career - a significant mentor they met while climbing the career ladder, a graduate scheme that saw them realise their true calling and potential. For me, my most momentous career moment was making the decision to come out at work.
I started my career in the early 90s, at a time when social attitudes towards LGBT+ individuals in the UK were far more conservative than they are today. It’s unimaginable now, but back then, there was a lot of misunderstanding about being gay and a deluge of negative media coverage on the subject. Professionals rarely talked about homosexuality and if they did, it was done in hushed tones. So as a result, for the first twenty years of my career, I actively avoided the subject and talking about my personal life.
Speaking openly to colleagues today about my husband is a million miles away from where I was when I started out. When I tell people my story, I always get asked how I managed to hide such a significant part of my life for so long. Followed quickly by ‘What made you decide to come out?’. When I started out, I realised quickly that to avoid ‘slipping up’ and divulging details about my relationship, the easiest way was not to ever talk about my personal life with colleagues.
It is unimaginable now, but back then I would constantly avoid conversations about evening and weekend plans, who I went on holiday with and where I spent Christmas. I was worried people may see me with my husband, so went out of my way to isolate our relationship. I’m a social person, so for me, this approach was mentally totally exhausting. I completely detached from colleagues. I must have come across as distant and unapproachable, which is the complete antithesis of who I really am.
Slowly but surely, I saw attitudes and perceptions towards being gay shift. People were talking about it more in the work place and the stigma was beginning to lift externally. At the same time, I knew that I wasn’t being true to myself, or my team and the burden of having to be two totally separate people was unsustainable. So after much thought, I made the decision to bring my husband along to a client event we were holding at the bank. Of course, I was anxious about it, but it felt like the right thing to do and when people met him and I saw the reaction – which was nothing but positive - I felt seismic sense of relief. All the scenarios I had played out in my head about people’s reactions were so wrong. There was no judgement at all, no one seemed that interested, actually!
Since coming out, I feel I can now concentrate far better on work and really add value to certain situations I would have historically shied away from. I have definitely become more outspoken and persuasive - a more authentic version of myself and more engaged with my job and colleagues. I realise I have been lucky to work for an organisation that has shown me nothing but support and respect, but I am conscious my story is still being repeated by individuals in the world of work today. Having lived experience, I want to make sure that no one goes through what I did. For me, it is essential, that we and the wider financial services industry create a culture where all employees feel supported and included as I was, and am. That diversity and inclusion isn’t just a buzz word and tick box exercise, but something that we actively encourage, nurture and celebrate. Workforces are definitely becoming more inclusive. Yet many LGBT+ employees still do not feel as if they can be their true selves at work – which has ramifications on performance and wellbeing.
Today, I regularly address my own and other teams at internal meetings, region-wide town halls and LGBT+ Pride and Ally panel events - both internally and externally. Alongside this, I also promote the company’s message of LGBT+ inclusion to peers and clients, encouraging them to join us in taking stock of the barriers facing LGBT+ people in the workplace, and advising on how, together, we can overcome these to the benefit of the entire financial services industry. I have also started initiating conversations around diversity and inclusion in offices I visit throughout the Middle East and Africa where previously such topics were seldom if ever raised.
I don’t take for granted the experience of coming out I had and the lack of prejudice that others still face, but see it as my duty to have the conversations and to encourage dialogue. We have come such a long way since I started out in financial services, but we still have a long way to go.
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