Authenticity: Bringing Your ‘Full’ Self to Work

May 16, 2018

Levis Maina,

While on a flight from Washington DC to Copenhagen, I sat next to a charming middle aged African American lady who just started working as an event planner for a large tech company in San Francisco. During the conversation, I mentioned I was coming back from a conference where I presented a report on Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBTI+) Workplace diversity and inclusion. Initially, she feigned interest but her body language and facial expressions betrayed her. Her smile and charm faded in an instant. I thought to myself, “Girl, San Francisco, is the ‘most’ gay place in the world. You better get used to it.” My attention would later be turned to ‘Battle of the Sexes’ a documentary of the life of Billie Jean King.

Billie Jean King is an American, former World Number One professional tennis player,  who won 39 Grand Slam titles between 1966-1975. King was married to Larry but after 3 years she got into a secret relationship with a woman named Marilyn. After a decade of being with her; a lawsuit ensued in 1981 which forced King to publicly come out as bisexual and consequently becoming the first prominent professional female athlete to do so. This cost her to lose $2 million in sponsorships in a single day! Thankfully, we are now in 2018 but the situation has not changed that much.

In the book, The Glass Closet, John Browne who was the CEO of BP one of the largest oil companies admits that he was forced to resign from his position in 2007 due to the revelations of his sexuality as he was publicly ‘unmasked’ by a male escort whom he had a secret affair with. He says, ”Driving away from the corporation that I helped to build felt like dying. For decades, I dissembled and fenced off a large portion of my life to prevent all this from happening. I had been evasive for as long as I could. But on that day, almost inevitably, my two worlds collided. In the fallout, I lost the job that had structured my entire life.”

These stories and many other untold workplace experiences make me ponder on the question:  Can we bring ourselves to work without fear, risking judgement and shame for being who we truly are? A recent 2018 study published by Harvard Business Review shows that authenticity leads to higher career mobility as colleagues are more attached to familiarity and trust. However, Fast Company reports that 61 per cent of employees hide some part of their personal life at work. This is because they fear honesty will unfortunately cost them the job.

For the LGBT+ employees, the dilemma to open up about their sexuality is even more accelerated by the social stigma, explicit or unconscious bias and the uncertainty of career progression. In fact Selisse Berry, former CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates said, “No one should have to choose between the career they love and the person they love.”

How then can organizations—corporate and nonprofits—create an environment where their LGBT+ employees can be fully themselves?

First is to have the leadership team lead by example by expressing the commitment of the organization to diversity, inclusion, and belonging. To celebrate employees diversity in organizations such Hivos East Africa have been keen on influencing diversity and inclusion policies in local multi-national companies in Kenya. Through the first of its kind diversity and inclusion conference in Africa, Hivos East Africa together with Sullivan Marketing and Workplace Pride brought together stakeholders in the business sector to have conversations on creating safe workspaces where LGBTI+ persons can feel safe and valued.

Next step is to have a clear written policy in place that articulates this commitment to values of diversity and inclusion. The policies should mention sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class. While policy is important, it ensures that the attitudes and behavior of the employees are inclusive and respectful to LGBT+ persons.

Thirdly, create an employee resource group specifically for LGBT+ persons. This could be informal or formal. It could start with a small number of people. Talking to Paul Overdijk, former Director of Global Strategy at TNT and Chair of Workplace Pride Foundation, he spoke of how 20 years ago they started an LGBT Network with only 5 members, which grew to over 500 members in a few years. The resource group should also make security considerations to LGBT+ employees in countries such as Kenya where they could face legal and social ramifications. He further states that to be successful, the network should have informal sessions where members can freely express themselves. These networks help the management to understand LGBT+ issues and have proven powerful for companies that want to serve inclusive ‘markets’.

In addition, having a team of heterosexual allies who are trained, equipped, and engaged on LGBT+ issues is critical to changing the attitudes and perspectives of others. At Accenture, a global consulting firm, employees place supportive banners in the footer of their emails while at Goldman Sachs, supporters set up rainbow branded ‘ally tents’ on the desk. The allies are equipped with tips on ‘how to talk to their heterosexual colleagues about their experiences with LGBT+ friends and family, how to offer mentorship to LGBT+ employees and how to challenge homophobic or insensitive behavior’.

Company participation in diversity and inclusion conferences such as the Colorful Workplaces Conference in Nairobi, Workplace Pride Conference in Amsterdam or Out & Equal Conference in the US could help both LGBT+ employees and their allies with tools and best practices on diversity and inclusion. On a small scale, companies can participate in international days that celebrate inclusion such as International Women’s Day, International day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), AIDS Day among others. These could be done internally or in collaboration with local civil society.

The final component and perhaps most important is to identify role models and have them share their stories with others. Personal story telling puts a name and a face to the issues and challenges faced by LGBT+ people. It humanizes the cause so that it’s not just a business case but a human rights issue. Story telling invokes the heart, not just the mind. The LGBT role models could be invited in as speakers. These could be celebrities, human rights activists, sport icons, , business executives etc.

Creating a culture of inclusion that welcomes authenticity and individuality is not a destination, but a journey that takes time. However management must be intentional in their efforts to ensure that everyone feels celebrated and welcome to enjoy their sexual identity and orientation.


Levis Maina Nderitu is the CEO of Sullivan Marketing, Founder of Sullivan Reed Society, Mandela Washington Fellow, Out & Equal Global fellow and currently a Dreilinden Scholar at the Erasmus University Rotterdam based at The Hague. The article was first published on the Oxfam Novib Academy blog and slightly amended to Hivos editorial standards for use in the Hivos East Africa website.