Monday, October 19, 2009

Email from an out gay guy who works for a bank

Just under 4 weeks ago, I got an email about the prejudices that straight guys can have about working with gay guys. The email was as follows:

Dear GB,

I've been following your blog for quite a while, which I think is very useful and entertaining at the same time. Can I please ask for your kind help and advice?

I'm a 27 gay man who has recently joined a large UK bank. I grew up in Amsterdam where I've never had any issues with being gay and I didn't make a secret out of my sexual orientation when I applied for this position. My line manager appears to be quite comfortable with it. Also my team members are fine with too and have even joined me on a boys night out in Soho (3 guys all straight). I have a straight appearance and manners, so in general I seem to hit it off quite well with straights. The job, line manager and colleagues are the best I could've asked for.

I haven't really had a great relationship with the department's head from the very first start though. It always surprised me from the very beginning how he actively reached out to my team members and my subordinates, while I felt I was always shut out by him (seriously, although I've tried to initiate conversations or reach out to him, he would just ignore me. He even never responds to my greetings in the mornings). Although not very nice, it wasn't something that I was too bothered about, so I decided not to let it affect me. I always wondered: is it because I'm gay??? Until today!

We had a team lunch to welcome a new team member and I sat in front of the department's head and the new team member. They seemed to hit it off quite well. I was engaged in a conversation with a couple of colleagues when I heard my name a couple of times in their conversations. Didn't exactly catch what they were saying. At a certain point, I decided to listen carefully and again my name fell. I then clearly heard the head saying ' X definitely choose the wrong sector, he should have tried fashion media and design" followed by a loud laughter. For a couple of seconds I couldn't breath; I felt like someone stumped me intensely hard in my stomach. Although I'm very ad rem and have a strong personality and can control my emotions well, tears filled up my eyes and I couldn't say a word; I felt paralysed and weak. I couldn't believe what I heard: were they really saying that?

I felt deeply offended and humiliated. Are gay people incapable of occupying professions other than fashion media and design? Are we still living in that era that gay people should hide their true identity for the sake of being accepted and not subjected to public humiliation?

I'm very confused as to how to handle this situation. Am I over dramatising this??

Being a gay professional who is well experienced in investment banking here in the UK, I'd really value and appreciate your opinion and advice on how to handle this. I'm not per se looking for vindication, I simply don't want this to ever happen again. Would it be wise to speak to my line manager (who reports to him)? Or should I speak to him directly, or someone else or simply keep my mouth shut and get on with my work???

Thank you so much!

I'm sure that lots of gay guys who work for banks or for other big corporate firms could run into this kind of thing during their career, so it's an important issue.

At the time when I received the email, there were three other pending advice requests in my "Dear GB" queue on this blog's right-hand side bar. However, I felt that this reader needed some immediate advice, so I sent him the following email:

Because you're 4th in my "Dear GB" queue at the moment it'll be a few weeks before I can get round to posting your email, so meanwhile there are two things I can say:
  1. you need a thick skin to work as an out gay guy in any corporate environment. It's like being in the school playground - any weakness is seized upon. So don't let them get to you.
  2. you need to earn the respect of you co-workers, and that won't happen if you speak to anyone about this and make some kind of complaint. The standard way of earning respect is a work environment is to do an excellent job, but if you're able to interface socially then that can help too. Or if you overhear a similar comment again, if you've got a quick wit and can make a cutting remark about the guy who said it, that would earn immediate respect - problem solved! But that takes a lot of confidence, of course, and is hard to do.
Within a day I received his reply:

Hi GB,

Thank you so much for your quick response! That's kind of you.

I really appreciate your advices, thanks! I ran through your comments and you're absolutely right! I think I might have become too comfortable with the fact that my direct colleagues (who know me quite well) are quite open-minded and have no issues with an out gay co-worker. Also, that I need to develop a thicker skin (which I kind of thought I had). The corporate world is indeed not the easiest place for openly gay men, no matter in which country.

I had to smile when I read the comparison with the school yard, it so made sense. I guess I kind of expected the department's head (a 60 yo man) to act more like a head teacher who would protect you against bullies rather than to bully you himself, which is a foolish assumption: boys will always be boys.

Luckily, I believe I'm doing a good job, which is acknowledged by many people within the department and that's what count at the end! I believe this makes the head look foolish if and when he talks negatively about me.

I was thinking today that indeed, if I were to tell or complain to anyone about what happened yesterday at the restaurant, it might put me in a weaker position and that it won't serve me at all. I decided to put this aside, keep on performing well, while being positive and true to myself. Again, thanks a million.

Now that I've got round to posting this guy's emails, I'm not sure that there's much more to say. As an example of gaining the respect of colleagues, I did a post last year about how my colleague M was able to earn the respect of his co-workers on one of the trading floors of the bank that I work for. But to do that kind of thing one needs to be able to think of a good reply quickly. As I said above, it also requires a lot of confidence.

It's true that in the UK these days, there are employment laws to protect minorities such as gay and lesbian workers. However in the corporate world, one should never fall back on those laws, because one will be seen as someone that needs special treatment because of one's sexuality and that damages one's reputation. As I said in my email to this reader, the key here is to earn the respect of one's co-workers. In my experience, good work coupled with an open, friendly and helpful manner is a perfectly good way of achieving that :-).

Does anyone else have any thoughts on this subject?


John F said...

Yep, I've got some thoughts.

The behaviour of the department head is bang out of order.

The reader has already gone out of his way to be friendly to the man, but obviously the man's prejudices are getting in the way of the cordial professional relationship the reader is trying to foster.

GB, you are suggesting that the man simply try harder to earn the department head's respect and simply live with his abuse; not only should he not have to go above and beyond the efforts put in by his colleagues simply because he is gay, he has already done that to no avail.

Simply put, the department head is behaving in an illegal fashion and this needs to stop.

Would it be acceptable if he had said about a black subordinate "He should have gone into hip-hop music," or about an Asian subordinate "He should be running a corner shop,"? Absolutely not - to do so would be extremely prejudicial and could (and should) get him fired.

This is no different.

My advice to the reader is this:

Stay strong. You have the support of your immediate colleagues.

Document each and every occurrence in which you feel treated differently because of your sexuality. Send an email to yourself with a description of what has happened (with as little emotion and judgment as possible; just make it descriptive) as soon after each incident as you can. If nothing else, you will have a record should you ever need to.

Should you ever come across any physical evidence (notes left on your desk, etc.), take a digital photo or otherwise record exactly what you see.

The LAST thing I recommend doing is simply accepting it and trying harder to please a bigot.

Hang in there and be strong.

GB said...

I guess my point, John F, is that guys on a bank's trading floor joke about anything and everything, including people's characteristics. It's not politically correct to call someone shorty, or make jokes about gingervitis, but it happens. That kind of environment isn't suited to anyone who worries too much about what other people say. If someone reacts, it simply makes them a target in the future, and if someone complains to Human Resources they're not going to end up with the respect of their co-workers and managers. In a banking environment, all the guys I know who've ever made that kind of complaint end up moving on within a year or so, because the complaint ultimately makes it more uncomfortable to work there. A complaint against your manager also means that your manager will always be looking for excuses to replace you, unless the complaint results in the removal of the manager and I've never heard of that happening. Although that might all sound bad the good news is that there's not usually any malicious intention behind this kind of joking around. So in connection with being gay, it's not usually homophobia, although it might well be that the people who make comments haven't met many gay people in the past. In summary, I suppose that I am suggesting that this reader simply continues to do good work, and ignores the department head. After all, he seems to be getting on well with his career there, and he seems to get on well with some of his co-workers. However, if he needs to work in a politically correct environment, then he should move.

Given the fact that these kinds of remarks might be made sometimes, if he has a record of these remarks then it would probably help him get more redundancy money if he ever ends up losing his job. The key phrase to use in a redundancy situation is that it's a "gay-hostile environment", and back up that assertion with the list of remarks. However, keeping a record of such remarks won't help him develop his career.

GB xxx

Hedgie said...

Hmmm I was going to say I disagreed until I got to the last part of your comment, GB!

I agree definitely it is best not to complain about or mention this manager's attitudes to anyone in the company at the moment. If anything, the manager has put the employee in a position of some strength in that he now has some knowledge of where this guy is coming from, which could potentially be used to advantage.

He should continue doing the best possible job he can, reaching out and trying to sustain good working relationships with everyone, including this manager. But as John F above says, document everything.

I have a woman friend who had a very high position in a corporation in New York, and the same thing happened to her. She couldn't play the "boss is sexist" card until the whole situation came to a head (at his initiative). But her documentation of the sexist nonsense she was having to work with helped her achieve a very satisfactory pay out.

I really don't think a complaint to HR will ever do anything for the employee. A company will always close ranks around a senior manager, despite good practice policies and good intentions. If things get intolerable, look for a better company to work for.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised at the lack of self-respect and sense of responsibility that runs through GBs replies to this issue.

If it wasn't for brave gay people standing up for their right to live and work without prejudice, we would still be being blackmailed and abused like we were before our rights were won.

It's unacceptable to allude to the idea that banking, or corporate structures, are somehow outside the law, and can be allowed to continue to foster divisive and hateful treatment of people from different backgrounds. This is never acceptable, and a strong man would say so. A man deserving of respect would stand up and say so - and any respect from your colleagues that depends on emasculating yourself and swallowing whatever shite is thrown your way is no respect worth having.

The person who asked the question need not report this to HR. He could just let the manager know he has been over-heard, and a record has been made, and it will go further if things continue.

That would earn my respect, because we have no idea which other gay members of staff this man is bullying, and some of those won't have the confidence or the corporate power to complain effectively.

We owe it to all other gay people to object when homophobia rears its head. In the same way I would complain about racism or sexism i the workplace, no matter who the perpetrator, so too must anti-gay sentiment be challenged.

At the least, the victim of this bullying should explain to the older man that times have changed, and anti-gay statements are no longer acceptable. Warn him, for his own good, that his attitude could cost his company a great deal of money and bad PR - that is the professional and manly thing to do.

John F said...

Hi GB. I definitely see where you are coming from and appreciate the eloquence of your argument, but I do not agree with your analysis of the situation.

I accept that there is a certain amount of good-natured ribbing that takes places in most workplaces - hell, I probably instigate more than my fair share in my own office. I tease my German colleagues for being punctual, and we all tease the Australians about having barbeques. I have friends and acquaintances who work on trading floors and I know the level of teasing that takes place can be higher than in other places.

However, this situation is different. The reader who wrote you said that he has tried several times to initiate contact with his department head who refuses to have anything to do with him or to even acknowledge his presence in several instances. The one time which this man did acknowledge his presence, it was to make a homophobic comment behind his back. This goes far and beyond good-natured ribbing. I think we can all agree that it is prejudice, pure and simple.

Now, the question is what to do about it.

GB, you are suggesting that the man accept it and redouble his efforts to win this man over. I do not accept this approach. I think, first of all, that the man will never be able to win over the department head. He has demonstrated his homophobia, and nothing the reader does is likely to change that.

I also personally believe that the reader shouldn't have to win over the department head, since his sexuality shouldn't in and of itself require him to work harder than anyone else - that's what laws are for - but for the time being that's beither here nor there.

There are a couple of areas where we can compare our approach: I don't think the man should complain to HR and neither do you; doing so could "mark his card" so to speak as you say and that will harm him more than anyone else. If I were the man, however, I would not put in more effort than I already am whereas I think that is what you are suggesting; it is a waste of time to expend any more effort on someone who is a lost cause.

I would simply document all instances of special or different treatment and would just bear it in mind if anything else should be noted.

To the reader: can you not join the bank's gay & lesbian employees' association? This will create a more-or-less rock-solid foundation upon which you can rest any future claims for redress, if, god forbid, you should need them.

Best wishes to all

John F x x

GB said...

And other thing. We're all assuming that this department head doesn't like the reader because the reader is gay. The fact is, there are 100's of reasons why people don't like each other. Perhaps this department head was pushing for another person to get the job that this reader ended up with, and so is trying to make him feel uncomfortable so that he'll leave? Sure, not very nice behaviour, but that wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that the reader is gay. So I don't think we should focus on the gay issue because there could be so many other reasons for his behaviour. Some people like each other and some people don't like each other. Deal with it!!

GB xxx

John F said...

That's a very good point and one which did occur to me at various times through my responses.

From the description in the original note from the reader, it was indeed rather unclear the source of the perceived dislike by the department head. That the only interaction between the two was a homophobic comment made by the department head leads me to say "Where there's smoke, there's fire," but without more information from the original reader, it's impossible to know for sure.

Indeed, if there is dislike for some different reason (only the reader can know this for sure), then I agree - the reader needs to learn to live with it. If the dislike is because of his sexuality, then the reader has legal protection against this and it should not be tolerated.

I would be interested to hear the input from the reader once again if he's out there.

A-Philosophical said...

Well, to be honest I was requesting for terminology about becoming an addict to American Beef. And, a friend of mine, American based in Ft. Lauderlade, told me this


sometime in the 1930s, American bread became a factory product.

It is very identified with "traditional" Anglo America.

McDo is not as restricted.

I think I would stick with "White Bread" for your kind of assumes the stereotypical American of Northern European/Anglo origins."

I replied to him "But I cannot tell you I am into in only "traditional" or white Americans. My ex from NYC is from Lebanese extract, so I do not know. It is more about the cock and not being Asian basically since I fancy also some latins born in the USA and African Americans. What do you think of me now?"

My London based US-Born friend told me the next later:

"white bread or wonder bread might be an option. It's certainly something that is purely from the US! I think you like a variety of guys and are very open-minded. Nothing wrong with that at all."

The Buddha Smiled said...

Hi GB,

I have to say, when I read your initial response to the question raised on how best to react, I was in violent disagreement (probably in a similar space as John F further up in these comments.) Your clarifications through the comments have ameliorated my reaction though, and John F' has outlined my suggestions much better than I probably could. HR in IB tend to be useless, in general, and will always defer to senior management unless there is a real risk of legal liability, so unfortunately complaining about a passing comment over lunch is unlikely to get much sympathy. If there's a thick folder of evidence, though, there is a greater likelihood of getting some sort of traction.

I second the anonymous commenter's suggestion to let his immediate manager know that the comment was made and that it was not really acceptable. If things should, in the worst of cases, get uglier, then the fact that the querent raised the matter with his immediate line manager will help answer the query, "well, if this was happening, why didn't you do something about it before?" It doesn't have to be a complaint, but if the line manager is supportive of the employee in general, then it may be useful to say, "this happened, I didn't like it. I'm not complaining, but if it continues, I may have to." I don't think doing that would necessarily prejudice the querent's team atmosphere, since his immediate colleagues and boss seem fine. It would, however, air the issue, and let's be honest, eventually we're going to be looking at performance reviews, bonus awards, promotion opportunities, etc, and if the department head has taken a dislike to the guy, then he can continue to cause problems indefinitely into the future.

As someone who was working in a bulge-bracket IB firm till earlier this year, I fully accept that trading floors are not the most PC of places. Racism is probably the phobia that is watered down (maybe because there are so many Asian and Chinese brains on the floors earning millions) but sexism and homophobia are probably more prevalent. You ultimately do need a thick skin in banking - whether on the hard-ass trading floor, or in the smoother client advisory / corporate finance side, and you'd need a thick skin even if you're the straightest white guy around; it's the nature of the beast. At the same time, this sort of homophobia (and here I'm making an assumption that the department head's comments are indeed grounded in homophobia and not some other dislike which is being vented through a comment made about the only thing he can find to say about the querent) will continue in IB as long as there are not enough people coming out at work - not to make a political statement, but only as a matter of course. Once you get enough MD's and chairpersons at banks who are LGBT and out, then eventually people further down the food chain will realise that maybe it's better to watch their language.

I'd only reinforce the value of joining the firm's LGBT / rainbow association; not only does it give you a support network of other colleagues, but as I personally found myself, it also gets you a lot of airtime with senior management who attend sessions in an attempt to strengthen their "diversity champion" credentials, and since rainbow groups (unlike, say women's networks, or ethnic diversity forums) tend to be smaller, you're more likely to get noticed; all of which helps later in the year during those all important reviews and bonus discussions. And you can use your membership as a way to check your "building networks across the organisation" box in your performance review! :)

Actually, while on that point, GB, what's your view of rainbow associations at banks?

GB said...

In general, I'm in favour of these gay networks in banks, :-), TBS. If this reader does want to raise this issue with his boss, I'd suggest that the best time would be during one of the routine (presumably semi-annual) appraisals. That way, he's not making a big issue out of the matter by seeking a special meeting to discuss it.

GB xxx

close encounters said...

GB, have to say that i too was shocked my your initial response that "one should never fall back on those [equality] laws" ... but i think you've subsequently differentiated between the name calling and proper homophobia ... but this does sound like it might be full on gay hating ...

i agree with the suggestion of mentioning it to the bloke's manager - sounds like a good half way step, and it puts down a marker ...

coincidentally, i was talking to a friend the other day, who mentioned that he used to work for one of the big banks, and felt that they had an anti-gay bias ...

personally, i still haven't managed to join my company's LGBT group - just sounds a bit too forced !

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the post seems to give way to the causality from accepting the banking environment is like that, i.e. homophobic.
If the perception is never challenged, it will never change. Complaining isn't a weakness, it shows you mean business, and that isn't to say you can't throw in a cutting remark or two either.