Last year I joined our in-house LGBTQ+ mentoring programme, hoping to inspire and support others. I’m currently a mentor to two colleagues.

I’ve never been fully in the closet at work, but for 20 years I was careful about how open I was, and I side-stepped questions about a husband. My mantra was ‘I’ve never actually lied, just omitted or avoided’.

I now reflect that my earlier silence could unintentionally have enabled unacceptable behaviour from others. Maybe I unknowingly colluded with the belief that conformity is critical to career advancement. Those who are struggling to be themselves at work, or spend so much energy trying to hide themselves will not be able to perform at their best. I’ve now reached a stage in my career where I feel I can support a younger generation to live a more authentic life through my mentoring work with our LGBTQ+ network, Equilibrium, and my actions as a manager.

Why is this important?

It benefits both employees and employers. Studies are very clear- organisations that embrace LGBTQ+ policies outperform competitors. For those of you who like stats:

  • Staff who are ‘out’ at work have 70% higher retention rates (1), whilst 31% of non-binary people and 18% of trans people don’t feel able to wear work attire representing their gender expression (2)
  • Being fully ‘out’ at work correlates with a 30% productivity benefit (1)

Being as open as you want to be

Everyone, no matter their sexuality, religious beliefs, education, race or gender, wants to be accepted, so at work we build a version of ourselves that avoids rejection, potentially hiding ourselves to fit the status quo and thus not performing at our best. In a mentoring or leadership role, by not hiding, and being in control of our authentic identity, we encourage others to do the same and to hopefully be happier, more productive and more innovative, which is also good for business.

But here’s the thing about coming out—you do it more than once. Potentially every day. And it’s exhausting! It always feels like the LGBTQ+ individual is solely responsible for managing this, to judge what feels appropriate, what you’re comfortable with at work. A more inclusive culture, where colleagues don’t presume any specific way of life, would be so helpful.

The importance of visible LGBTQ+ mentors 

Education and diversity training are a huge step forward but seeing more out and open individuals from the LGBTQ+ community in senior positions will accelerate change. It would’ve helped me if I’d had a workplace mentor or role model who lived like me—actually I still don’t have that!  

Achieving more with mentoring

We can all reach out to someone we admire—someone in a more senior position, a workplace peer or a friend who inspires by the way they manage their life—and develop a mentor/mentee relationship. Mentoring is a two-way street; a good mentor will also want and need ‘reverse mentoring’ for the different perspective brought by  people who, despite fewer years at work, may have fresh and relevant ideas.

As a mentor on the LGBTQ+ mentoring programme, many of the discussions I have are similar to other mentor relationships. But where there are issues connected with orientation, I can offer empathy and lived experience. It’s important to avoid telling your mentee what to do, or what they’re doing wrong. Listening, understanding and highlighting practical tools and advice to choose from has been much more effective and rewarding.

Steps every manager can take

  • Be an ally for others, demonstrating that diversity is part of your organisation’s culture
  • Disrupt the status quo with visible support for those who are marginalised
  • Show courageous leadership and challenge inequality in all its forms
  • Create a team where talent rises to the top and fulfils potential, irrespective of identity
  • Ensure employee benefits are equal for all, regardless of sexual orientation
  • Seek training if you need it, to become a manager who can hold the space for complex conversations.

My most valuable piece of mentoring advice is that we must all challenge our own thinking and that of those around us, removing barriers and making space for people who would otherwise struggle to get a seat at the table and have their voices heard.

Now more than ever I recognise how important it is for LGBTQ+ leaders to be their authentic selves and I hope anyone struggling can look at me and see that you can be defined by much more than your sexuality.