A rainbow flag is a feel-good symbol that can be worked pretty easily into a company’s advertising, social media, and even into packaging, during June’s Pride Month celebrations. And most efforts are welcomed as they raise awareness around LGBTQ team members and the importance of inclusive workspaces.
But, of course, Pride goes a lot further than one month and a lot deeper than slogans and short-lived campaigns. That includes its roots as a political movement that grew out of the Stonewall Riots in June 1969 when members of the LBGTQ community fought back against police harassment.
During the 2021 WFF Leadership Conference, many attendees came together through the LGBTQ Community of Interest (COI) to talk about progress made, support within the Food Industry and advice for handling personal and professional challenges.
Coming out and going all in
A consultant to businesses on fraud, audit, compliance and process transformation, and the former head of integrated global services for the Campbell Soup Company, Bethmara Kessler knows something about risk assessment. Her antenna finely-tuned to potential downsides has served her well in financial management, but may also have kept her closeted for the first half of her career.
“Mid-career, I decided to roll the dice and finally jumped out of the closet with both feet,” the business advisor recalled. “I will tell you it wasn’t the easiest and there were a lot of bumps in the road but it was a decision I never regretted and one I wish I had made earlier.”
Kessler facilitated the discussion during the LGBTQ Community of Interest and pointed to the high costs of hiding your true self in the workplace. “I spent too much time navigating my way out of awkward conversations, was exhausted from hiding and covering and felt I wasn’t being a good role model to my three children.”
Sharing your story
COI co-facilitator, Brisbane Vaillancourt, Regional Vice President with Aramark, knows that sense of hesitation. “Before joining Aramark, I had been with my previous employer for 13 years,” she shared. “I knew I was ready for the next step in my career but was reluctant to leave a place where I was out and everyone knew who I was and I was comfortable.”
Her wife urged her to go for it and Vaillancourt decided to stretch. During her first week at Aramark, she came out to her boss. “It was actually much easier than I thought it was going to be. The world is a much safer place once you get outside your own uncomfortable skin,” she said.
As a senior leader today, she strives to really get to know the people she works with. She creates intentional space for her team members and their direct reports to share about themselves and their personal lives when they first join the team. “When we slow down and get to know people, you can often avoid a much more awkward explanation down the road,” Vaillancourt said.
COI co-facilitator Jude Medeiros, who heads up efforts to decrease food waste in the Office of Corporate Responsibility with Sodexo, pointed to the many people who still do not feel safe to come out at work. “Even today, 47% of people are not out at work and even 28% of people are not out in any aspect of their lives,” she said. “We have to show up for people and meet them where they are.”
Growing in confidence over time, she chose to come out during the interview process when she was hired by Sodexo. Today, she lives by a philosophy of being so completely herself that others feel safe being themselves too.
“I believe we have a lot of responsibility as a corporation — from seeing people like us in advertising to benefits that include domestic partners, transgender health benefits, gender affirmation surgery, gender identity expression in our policies, active leaders in the organization who display their support and executive sponsors,” she said.
The importance of allies
Throughout the conversation, allies arose as a critical factor, along with champions in senior management. “Diversity has to start at the top to have that inclusive environment,” Vaillancourt said. “All of our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) at Aramark have an executive sponsor who’s actively involved. Our President for Higher Education is our sponsor and he challenges us to bring new things to the table for the Pride group.”
“There has to be an overall strategy that aligns at all different levels,” she added. “And there need to be champions who help push the message forward and drive that connectivity.” She stressed the importance of connecting with hourly employees who may have less access to technologies used to spread the word.
Seeing the importance of allies in the cause of advancing LGBTQ rights, the women also expressed commitment to being there for other underrepresented groups, including Asian colleagues experiencing increased hostility and Black team members who are often marginalized.
“The Black Lives Matter movement helped me see my own privilege as a white person who could choose to hide who I was if I didn’t want to be out. Our Black colleagues don’t have that option,” Kessler said. “That has prompted me to ask how I can also use my privilege to elevate the voices of others who might be underrepresented and need my support too.”
At the same time, Medeiros also emphasized the critical role of policy development, citing the Equality Act, federal legislation that would provide the same protections to LGBTQ people as provided to other protected groups, that has been under consideration for nearly 50 years. “To make our workspaces feel like everyone belongs, we need system change too. At Sodexo, we made D&I part of our corporate goals and strategies so that now it is simply our way of life.”
Responding to participant questions and considering advice they might offer to their younger selves, the facilitators urged having greater confidence in your own ability to be your authentic self and in the willingness of others to accept you as you are.
“I would challenge myself to trust people a little bit more,” Vaillancourt shared. “Although it is not easy when you share your story people typically respect your openness and transparency and share their stories too. If I had taken a chance earlier in my career, it would have been easier than always second-guessing myself.”