“I want you to go home right now and think about your dirty, disgusting lifestyle and never speak about it again in the office.”
What if your line manager said that to you?
How would you feel?
Included? Wanted? Valued? One of the team?
When I was 18 years old, way back in the mists of a time known as 1993, I was working for a large international company in the marketing team at the UK head offices. This was a full 10 years before there was any protection for your sexuality in employment law. (Did you know it wasn’t even until 2003!?)
I was working at one of the big expos the company had a stand at and I got a call mid-morning that the MD wanted to see me back at HQ urgently. I got in my car and headed back to the office only to find he’d gone out to lunch.
I had to sit alone with his PA outside his office like a naughty school child until he got back. He took me into his office and told me he had heard I was “a homosexual.” Complete with a gulp and ‘the face’.
He told me he wanted me to go home and think about my ‘dirty and disgusting lifestyle’ and to never mention it again in the office.
That’s a lot to take in as an 18-year-old, starting off on your career, learning what the world thinks of you, and deciding how you’re going to treat people. For a lot of people, that sort of comment could absolutely crush them and make them live in the closet for years to come, hiding their true selves away, scared of how others — especially their co-workers — would perceive them.
However, there’s a great lesson to be learned there too, and that’s how not to treat people. It’s certainly something that has stuck with me as I’ve grown through my career and have become responsible for my own team.
This year, let’s celebrate Pride without being prideful. Let me clarify what I mean: It’s super easy with any event during the year to ‘get involved’ by throwing up the banner, flag, ribbon, or other paraphernalia and be proud that the ‘job’s done.’ But how can we as people, line managers, and companies demonstrate that support — that Pride — throughout the year, how can we make the rainbow stretch out for 12 months instead of just 12 days?
I’d encourage you to think about how you and your team can be really open and inclusive beyond saying ‘happy pride month’ to each other or hanging up a flag. A classic one is when I’m meeting someone for the first time and we start to chit-chat:
“Oh, you’re married right?”
“Yep, 5 beautiful years!”
“What’s your wife like?”
“Well my wife is a beautiful — 1.86m tall, 90kg, and a slightly hairy guy — but yeah, she’s great, thanks.”
I mean this light-heartedly, but the point is that we shouldn’t make so many assumptions. The start of wisdom is saying you don’t know something, the only way to find out is to ask. Let’s all ask the deeper level questions, and open up an inclusive conversation. For example:
“How is your partner?”
“What pronouns would you like us to use when we address you or them?”
Displaying this sort of care and thoughtfulness in the office shows you care about pride for all 12 months, not just during Pride Month. This kind of attitude shift can help people to feel safer in the workplace and become the people that they are truly capable of becoming.
I’m not saying by any means we’re stuck in 1993 with blatant homophobia around every corner. We’ve made some big strides — we’re on the journey, heading in the right direction. But it’s a trek to get there so let’s not allow unconscious bias to hold us back from reaching our destination. The little comments, the assumptions, the reluctance to learn, and the odd remark to colleagues that seemed harmless at the time — all these things could be more damaging than you know.
So this Pride month, have a think: what can you do to help every single member of your team feel included not just during Pride, but for the rest of the year too. You’re the start of a chain, one where they’ll carry that openness forward for the rest of their careers — the rest of their lives!