#Pride2020: Education key to inclusion in tech and retail

Retail and technology are industries that have made significant progress over recent years to broadly welcome LGBTQ+ employees but more progress can be made if there is the full support from leadership.

This is the view of Darren Williams, founder of Williams Harding Consulting, who has spent the past three decades in the retail sector as an openly gay man and is therefore well placed to detail how things have changed over the years in the workplace for the LGBTQ+ community.

When starting out at Radio Rentals, and also spending some years in the fashion industry, in the late 1980s he says being openly LGBT at work was “impossible” – even if you had already gone through the issue of coming out to your family and friends. “I did not want to tell my workplace because I believed I would not get promoted. There was definitely LGBT discrimination and I wanted to climb the ladder,” he recalls.

This changed in 1998 when he joined mobile phone company Orange that had a progressive policy and whose leadership had selected a diverse team across LGBT, age, colour and race.  “I joined them as an openly gay man and it gave me a platform to be myself. I had an epiphany that you could be openly LGBT and be promoted – if you worked hard. It was only about working hard,” says Williams.

This led him to become a flag bearer in the company – pushing for diversity and inclusion – which he has continued to pursue throughout his career and which today involves him holding an ambassador role at Stonewall.

Flying the flag in retail

A move to Costa coffee followed in 2003 at a time when parent company Whitbread was much more old school than Orange, being run by middle-aged white men. But to its credit, the company had appointed the openly gay Andy Marshall as MD of the Costa division.

“It was exciting to have this flamboyant character among the grey suits leading the business. I was part of his team re-energising the brand and flying the flag [for LGBT] in Whitbread,” says Williams.

While at Costa he realised that most people are not homophobic but can be “flippant” with remarks that they think are light-hearted. Although Williams says he is not sensitive to such remarks he acknowledges that it is a problem and cites research that reveals over the past five years two million people have encountered some sort of homophobic remarks at work.

"It was exciting to have this flamboyant character among the grey suits leading the business. I was part of his team re-energising the brand and flying the flag [for LGBT] in Whitbread"Williams describes working with Andy Marshall, former MD of Costa

“It is often seen as well-meaning banter and a jokey subject to giggle at. And to say something is gay means it’s really bad. It’s a dismissive word still in the workplace. There will be pockets of this [behaviour] in companies,” he says.

This situation is reflected in his experience as a Stonewall ambassador – that specifically involves him visiting schools to talk to pupils about the life of a gay man and careers – where the mere mention of the word gay will invariably illicit sniggering in the classroom.

The next career port of call for Williams was at Argos – a “brilliant employer for LGBT, age, race and diversity – it was a real rainbow” – and then he was off to Hotel Chocolat where again the leadership set the tone for openness. “The founders are family guys but have always surrounded themselves with a mix of people so diversity was in the DNA of the business and this enabled people to be themselves,” he explains.

Tech start-ups embracing of LGBTQ+

He suggests that unlike traditionally macho areas like banking, the technology and start-up industry is similar to retail in embracing LGBTQ+ and other diversity because the primary objective is to recruit the best talent. “My feelings are very positive to technology. The start-ups and younger clients I’ve worked with generally don’t give a monkey’s about your personal life. It’s more about what skills you bring. They simply want the best people,” he explains. 

During Pride many companies drape a rainbow flag outside their offices and place a similar image on their websites and Williams recognises that too much of this is sadly more about virtue signaling and he would like to see more companies paying more than simple lip service to LGBTQ+ policies. “The challenge for organisations is to not just say something but to actually mean it. For instance, if you go to HR with a LGBT-related problem can you be safe and not be seen as a whistleblower?”

He is an advocate of more training in companies to address these problems, which he believes can help them to take their LGBT practices and promises beyond simple inclusion on their mission statements. Building this into the L&D (Learning & Development] calendars would certainly be a progressive move, suggests Williams.

Invariably, he says, there will be people in businesses who feel uncomfortable with such moves but there will also be certain individuals who find it equally difficult facing up to different races, nationalities and colours in the workplace. But if these prejudices are not addressed with education and leaders taking responsibility for their people then no progress is ever going to be made.