Leadership Forum: The Role of the LGBTQ + Ally
Four senior executives recently gathered at the Rotman School to discuss “How Allies Can Advocate for LGBTQ+ Employees”. Following are highlights from the panel discussion. Compiled by Karen Christensen
A panel of senior leaders looks at the challenges and rewards of being an ally for LGBTQ+ employees.
Kenneth J. Fredeen General Counsel, Deloitte LLP
AGO, when I was asked to be on Deloitte’s ALMOST TEN YEARS original diversity council and to be the executive sponsor for its LGBTQ network, I felt honoured. Although I have family members and friends who are gay, I soon realized that we had lots of work to do in becoming an inclusive culture for members of the LGBTQ community.
As a straight man, there are some who see what I did as a courageous act, but it never felt that way to me. There were some whispers that I was gay, but that didn’t bother me. I am still asked sometimes, ‘What is your vested interest in doing this?’, and I honestly don’t have one. It all starts from my belief that inclusiveness means a more stable and successful society and economy. The fact is, an inclusive business will be more successful in attracting and keeping the best talent — which makes for a pretty compelling business case. The great thing for me is, as a straight, white, typically-abled, middle-aged guy, the expectations for me are pretty low — so being passionate about the importance of inclusion allows me to ask a lot of questions.
I really believe that today, you can’t be a great leader unless you understand, practice and promote inclusiveness. And it’s not just about the LGBTQ community: Unless people with disabilities are part of the inclusiveness equation, you can be neither an inclusive leader nor create an inclusive workplace.
Men have a critical role to play around inclusion, as do women. Together, we need to work to advance those who are ‘not like us’, so that the playing field is equal for everyone. It is not enough to agree with this in principle: You need to be prepared to say it out loud and to be visible about it.
I want young people to know that the most important thing for them is to be true to themselves about who they are and what they are passionate about. Businesses today are looking for diverse thinkers with different experiences who are passionate and resilient, to successfully confront the challenges we face. LGBTQ employees will flourish in this environment and bring success to their employers.
In the end, it is about visible leadership, calling out b*llsh*t when needed, and providing mentorship, coaching and sponsorship. We also need to understand that people are on different levels on the inclusion ladder. We have to be sensitive to that and educate and support people by removing the fears they might have. The good news is, people joining our company today are joining a much more inclusive environment than just a decade ago.
Sandeep Tatla Assistant VP, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Manulife
have always been very important ISSUES OF EQUITY AND INCLUSION to me. In my day-to-day work, I have the opportunity to lend my influence, power and privilege to ensure that those who may not have a voice are heard.
Over the years, the riskiest things I’ve done are not the actions that I’ve taken, or making changes to policy, or talking in front of groups. It’s been more about the one-on-one conversations I’ve had with leaders who, for example, in meetings, have made inappropriate comments, or said something (often, not on purpose) negative. The first time I did this, I was extremely nervous about it, but each time after that, whenever I’ve talked to a senior leader about these issues, they have been incredibly open to the feedback.
Most people don’t intend to be exclusionary, so when you call them on it, they often breathe a sigh of relief. Lots of people are grappling with LGBTQ language. They don’t know what to say or how to say it. When I open the door to these conversations, it’s amazing how open people are. Being an ally doesn’t always have to be about big, bold actions. At Manulife, we talk about being either an active or a passive ally, and there are plenty of opportunities for those of us who just want to dip our toe in the water.
As a visible minority, I live a very specific experience, and from that perspective, I realize that I will never truly understand the experience of an LGBTQ person; but I can certainly try my best to empathize and learn, and that’s how I approach it. That is why I often defer to members of the community. I’ve also learned that someone may ‘come out’ in the workplace once, but then, there are multiple other times throughout their career where they have to do it again — whether it be with a new boss or a new team member. It’s very important to allow each individual to dictate their own journey. Even as an ally, you can’t speak for them or assume that they are ready to have a conversation in public about particular things.
People who think discrimination and harassment no longer exist have just never experienced it, and as a result, they’ve got blind spots. Being an Indian woman, my whole life has been as an outsider looking in. I also know that there are lots of other outsiders looking in, and I can appreciate that. Just because I have that experience, it doesn’t give me carte blanche to say that I understand someone else’s experience.
In some ways, it’s easier for a visible minority like me, because there is no hiding the fact that I am Indian. When I’m applying for a role, people can tell immediately from my name — and either they want me there, or they don’t. But for individuals who are minorities in ways that we can’t see, there is always an internal struggle going on, day in and day out.
Deborah Richardson Deputy Minister, Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, Province of Ontario
community, there is a lot of focus on TYPICALLY, WITHIN THE LGBTQ the ‘LG’, and the rest of the community is left behind. Within my own space at the Deputy Minister’s office, we have a transgendered colleague, and this was a real learning opportunity for us. We suddenly realized that there was no available washroom for this person, so we had to have one installed. Pushing the bureaucracy about what constituted ‘appropriate signage’ turned into a pretty big deal. Even people who were trying to be helpful would use the term ‘transvestite,’ because they just didn’t understand the language. Pushing back on that, as a leader, is very important. There have been other incidences where I have to call out my own boss or other Deputy Ministers around a number of issues involving the Pride Network. It’s never easy to have these conversations, but it is critical.
As an ally, I am basically ‘leading with permission’. You can’t just become a champion for people and charge ahead: You need to make sure you are doing what they want you to do. That requires two key attributes: Empathy and self-awareness. Leaders often want to take charge, but I can’t think that my experience of discrimination as an indigenous woman is the same as anyone else’s. I do think that for people from marginalized groups, it’s easier to identify with each other, because many people from privileged groups don’t even believe that discrimination or racism still exist.
It is absolutely vital that we become comfortable calling out behaviour and inappropriate language, and not be afraid to do that. That really starts to change the tone in a workplace culture, especially when the person doing it is in a senior position. The Ontario Public Service Pride Network offers a course on how to become an ally, and it teaches three principles: First you must stand behind the individuals being discriminated against. That means organizing events that people can speak out at, and tell their own story, and we’ve done a number of these across the Ontario Public Service. Second, you must stand beside these individuals — attending the Pride Parade, or going to different events that are important to the community. And third, you must stand in front of these individuals, which means using your influence to advocate for continued progress on inclusion.
Whether it’s installing transgendered washrooms or creating a positive space so that people feel comfortable coming out, it’s really about leading with permission, not just being a ‘renegade advocate’. It takes courage to be an advocate for marginalized groups, because you’re fighting against the status quo — particularly in the big banks and within government, where representation in the senior ranks is not as inclusive as it should be.
Jennifer Tory Group Head, Personal and Commercial Banking, RBC
20 years ago, my role proWHEN I STARTED LEADING LARGE GROUPS vided the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life. Once you are in a leadership role, I believe it comes with certain responsibilities. I was honoured and humbled when, early in their journey, a couple of my close colleagues came out to me, and I was able to help them take steps to come out more broadly, open doors, and provide a platform where they could make a difference inside the firm and out in the community.
Years ago, when I was working in a retail banking environment that employed thousands of people, the employees wanted to signal that our work culture was a welcoming place. They had heard about a ‘rainbow initiative’ that was started somewhere else, and they wanted to try it. So, we put rainbow stickers outside the offices of people who gave us permission. To our surprise, someone actually went to the press and said, “Look what they’re doing at RBC!” It took real courage to continue the initiative, and to make people understand that we wanted to create an inclusive environment where everyone could feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work.
As an ally, you also have to create opportunities to bring others along with you. If you want to celebrate National Coming Out Day, it’s not just about sending an invitation out, but actually reaching out to involve senior people so that they, too, are seen as allies, and employees know that the environment is inclusive and safe, as it relates to career progression.
If you don’t create that kind of open environment, you won’t have people willing to come and talk to you about their individual situations, or how they’re feeling in the workplace, because they won’t perceive you as being open to that discussion. One of the most critical things we can do is reach out to people at all levels and create opportunities for everyone to be more open and com- fortable with each other, and share their experiences.
When I first started in my role as head of Greater Toronto region, I knew that TD Bank already had a prominent position in the LGBTQ community. We had not done anything wrong at RBC — we just hadn’t done anything visible enough to really demonstrate our commitment to the community. So, one of the first things I did was to invite a group of community leaders in, to get their advice on the type of support we could provide. We didn’t just support the community with our dollars, but also through volunteer opportunities for our employees, which created visibility and demonstrated that RBC itself was an ally.
Many LGBTQ employees have no interest in being political: They just want to come to work and be treated with the same respect as everyone else. People have said to me, ‘I don’t necessarily want to go to large events, or speak out about issues related to the LGBTQ community. That’s not for me.’ Supportive allies acknowledge that our job is not to put pressure on someone to ‘come out’; it’s to respect the fact that, in a sometimes homophobic society, people also have the right to not come out. As an ally I totally respect that and am there to follow your lead: Let me know how I can support you, and I will do whatever I can.