Men at Work | Why being out in the office is the best career decision you can make
This week I went for dinner with my mum and was able to tell her that I’m in a film with Sir Ian McKellan. It’s not a Hollywood Blockbuster like Lord of the Rings, but it is arguably about something much more important (cue hate mail from all you Frodo fans). It’s a short video that has been produced by Stonewall to show why their School Role Models programme is so important.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with it, the Stonewall School Role Models programme sends different members of the LGBT community into schools to talk to the young people about our life experiences and coming out in order to help normalise different sexualities/gender identities for them.
Volunteering as a School Role Model is something I’ve done for the past 18 months and I’ve visited around 10 schools in that time. The term ‘role model’ is one that I’ve not always felt comfortable with though, as I wouldn’t hold myself up as someone that these kids should try to be like and would never claim to be perfect, I’ve certainly got my fair share of flaws (chronic untidiness being just one of them).
For me the term ‘role model’ is about showing that all types of people, despite any perceived differences they might have to others, can still go on to live happy and fulfilling lives and be successful in their chosen fields. Specifically when I go to schools I talk about how sexuality and race should not be seen as barriers to achieving and these differences can be looked at as character building strengths rather than hindrances.
The release of this video got me thinking about my role models and the people that have had an impact on my life throughout the years, particularly those that had impacted me from a work context.
After finishing university, where I had made the conscious decision to be out to everyone I met, I found myself accepting a position on a graduate scheme with one of the major high street banks. It was here that I found myself having a crisis of confidence and in my own identity; worrying that coming out at work could hinder my chances of promotion, might not go down in the ‘macho’ world of banking or might make colleagues look at me differently. As a result I sadly climbed back in to the proverbial closet.
My first placement was to be in Bristol, but rather than doing what everyone else did and moved in with other people on the grad scheme, I was too scared about them finding out I was gay so decided to go on gumtree and found a flat-share with a lesbian outside of my work.
Although it was great living with her I did miss out on connecting with my intake in the same way as everyone else. Plus it was taking an awful lot of effort to hide my sexuality from colleagues – pretending that I didn’t have a boyfriend, or making up what I had done at the weekend as I didn’t want to mention the names of any gay bars that I was going to. It was all quite tough remembering who I had told what to.
Then fate struck – after four months I was relocated to a placement down in Brighton, the place that I had always viewed as the gay hub of England. It was here that I met my new boss Steve, the role model that I would say has had the single biggest impact on my career for the simplest of reasons. He was a gay man that was out at work.
Seeing somebody in the same profession as me who was in a senior role and had made it there by being unashamedly themselves had a profound impact on me. It showed me that I could succeed without having to compromise on who I was, without having to spend so much time and effort pretending to be something else. So I decided from then on that I wasn’t going to hide it anymore.
So I stopped pretending that I had been out at Tiger Tiger if I had really been out in Heaven. I stopped switching the pronouns when referring to my partner. I stopped hiding. And the result? I was happier and more productive at work. And those fears about people treating me differently, they never materialised. The group of graduates in my intake didn’t bat an eyelid and I’m still friends with many of them to this day.
I do believe though that it affected my chances of promotion. In a positive way. Not that I think there was any positive discrimination, but because I was happier at work, I was more productive and able to reach my full potential.
So for anyone reading this who might already be out at work, know that you might be someone’s role model without even knowing it. By being your true self you could be showing someone else that it’s ok to be their true self and could help give them the confidence to do it.
And to anyone who hasn’t felt comfortable in coming out at work yet, keep an eye out for those role models. They could help to inspire you to take that next step.
Sanjay Sood-Smith is a food entrepreneur and former candidate on The Apprentice. You can find out more about his business Tuk In, which makes curry-in-a-naan, at tukinfoods.com.Follow him on Twitter at @sanjaysoodsmithMore from Sanjay on attitude.co.ukMen at Work | 'What's your leadeship style - Adele or Mariah?'Men at Work | 6 Ways to Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking