You might think that ‘coming out’ is something you do once, and only once. In my experience it’s something you do every day, multiple times a day, because each time a new colleague asks 'What are you doing this weekend? Any plans for your birthday? What does your partner do?', you need to decide in that moment if you are willing to reveal that you are gay. And this can be a particularly hard decision to make in the workplace, especially when it’s your first time.
I graduated from the University of Bath eight years ago, and during my time there I was confident and proud about my sexuality and had a great group of friends who completely embraced me for who I was. Before I joined Accenture, I didn’t know what a corporate environment would be like. Because of that lack of understanding, I wrongly came to the conclusion that I had to hide my sexuality at work. As an ambitious person, I wanted to build a reputation based on my talent and skill, rather than my sexuality.
Making the decision not to be open about my sexuality was tough. I’d often go home in the evenings and agonise about the decision. I regularly battled with the 'what ifs?' spinning around in my head. 'What if people react badly? What if it ends up having some negative impact on my job?'
As my first year in the corporate world passed, I realised that hiding an important aspect of myself was having a damaging effect on my day-to-day life at work, as well as my mental health. A large part of what I do is based on working closely with my team and building client relationships – all of which rely on interpersonal skills. Always being on-guard, in fear that I’d let something slip about my sexuality, meant that I couldn’t build strong team or client relationships. It got so bad that at one point I even allowed my colleagues to think that I had a boyfriend because I was so scared about how they might react to me having a same sex partner.
After months and months of battling with the decision to be open with my colleagues, I realised I needed to speak to people who might understand what I was going through. I’d heard about Accenture’s LGBT+ network but initially hesitated in joining in case colleagues found out the truth before I could tell my own story. However, by joining the network, and meeting people who had been in similar situations, I gained the confidence to come out to my colleagues – and come out proudly. Just like I had been at university.
I never imagined that coming out at work would be the best career decision I ever made, but it has been. It has improved my wellbeing, helped accelerate my career and improved my skillset in ways that I simply wouldn’t have experienced if I wasn’t open and honest about myself. It is because of this first-hand experience that I now hold a mentoring role in Accenture, to make sure everyone knows they can be themselves.
My experience has shown me that the transition from university to work can be tough in ways you don’t realise until you get there. I’m fortunate to have a great employer. But there are improvements all companies can make, because coming out at work doesn’t have to be hard.
As a starting point it’s vital that companies promote their inclusion and diversity groups, as this is an easy way for employees and prospective employees to find out about the support services in place and feel confident that they will be accepted. I’d also love to see more businesses taking up the Accenture LGBT+ Allies approach, which acts as a continuous reminder of the firm’s inclusive culture. Visual cues around the office are important. For example, LGBT+ Allies at Accenture wear a rainbow lanyard to identify themselves as active supporters of the LGBT+ agenda.
Accenture research has also shown that LGBT+ employees do better where a company has set public diversity targets. However, it’s important that these targets are broad enough to have an impact across the workforce, and that they are sufficiently challenging while still achievable. This approach helps to turn words into action to drive real cultural change.
For anyone feeling uneasy about coming out to their colleagues, my advice would be to come out slowly, to people you trust. Remember you don’t come out at work once, you come out regularly, and it becomes easier each time you do it.
I’m now a veteran at coming out but looking back, the only regret I have is that I didn’t come out at work sooner. The support I’ve received has changed the course of my career, for the better.
Alicia Campbell-Hill is a manager at Accenture Strategy