Guillaume Levy-Lambert, Singapore-based co-founder of The MaGMA Collection and Art Porters Gallery, says while workplaces in the region have progressed, there’s always room to be more inclusive
Over the course of my three professional lives in banking, advertising and now art, I’ve witnessed massive shifts in how LGBTQ issues are perceived in the workplace. My experiences have only reinforced the idea that creating more inclusive workplaces is everyone’s task.
When I was a young banker at BNP Paribas, such matters were simply not discussed. But in 2019 (long after my departure in 1997), I was invited to be the keynote speaker for the launch of the bank’s Pride Network. It felt amazing to speak openly in front of staff and to share stories about my life as a young, gay banking executive one generation back. And it felt even more poignant to see that a few colleagues from my time were in the room.
On LinkedIn, I’m heartened to see former colleagues from my advertising days who have grown in their careers and taken leadership positions, and who are now “out” and celebrating diversity in their current workplaces. So the idea that you can be out and safe and successful is spreading, and the next generation has access to many visible role models.
Organisations that are truly inclusive in their work culture—those that embrace people of diverse age, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.—have been shown to perform better on measures of business competitiveness. It therefore makes sense for companies in Asia to devote more resources to LGBTQ advocacy on their journey to becoming truly diverse.
Let me share some personal anecdotes that I hope will inspire corporate leaders and young executives in their own actions, and show the way for companies to become more welcoming spaces for LGBTQ employees.
Support starts from the top
At BNP Paribas, my bosses showed their support for me in an unspoken way, even in those early days when diversity and inclusion was not yet a thing. When I was being encouraged to take a position in Tokyo in the mid-80s, one of the directors shared that it was possible for my “friend” to do France’s mandatory National Service in Tokyo if needed—it was his way of saying he knew I had a boyfriend and it was fine, and this played an important part in my saying yes (or rather, oui!).
That’s not to say everyone was equally supportive. Five years later, I was back in Paris at the bank’s headquarters at a cocktail party to celebrate my upcoming Hong Kong posting. Champagne glasses in hand, another boss toasted me and said he hoped I’d be as successful in Hong Kong as I had been in Japan. And right as he was saying that, another director interrupted him and said: “Well, the main thing is that we hope Guillaume will find himself a wife in Hong Kong.” I was 29 then, still hadn’t come out officially at work. While I looked at my shoes, hoping I didn't blush, I heard the bank chairman, the late Michel François-Poncet, say: “We don’t care. We just want you to do a good job.” It was his way of conveying that they all knew about my sexual orientation but it didn’t have anything to do with my work—I was stunned, and so were a couple other closeted colleagues.
Many LGBTQ workers are still not comfortable coming out in the workplace
While I might have facilitated the coming out of a few colleagues while at Publicis, the fact remains that many LGBTQ employees remain closeted or not completely open about their identities in the workplace. Some indulge in “covering behaviours”, such as changing the way they dress or avoiding speaking about their partners and families. Many do this to avoid workplace harassment, stigma, and the potential disruption of their careers.
Companies in Asia lag when it comes to LGBTQ advocacy and diversity-boosting workplace policies. In China, only 5.1 per cent of LGBTQ workers were completely open about their gender and sexuality at work, according to The China Quarterly. In Singapore, where I am based, a letter to The Straits Times from Pink Dot SG and non-profit counselling service, Oogachaga, disputed the Singapore government’s position that there is no discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace. It cited a 2018 study by the Asia Pacific Transgender Network which found that in Singapore, “non-transgender job applicants were almost twice as likely to receive positive responses than transgender job applicants although both groups had equivalent qualifications and experience.” In addition, it found that lesbian women “reported being bullied or harassed by supervisors and co-workers because of how they dressed or looked” and that transgender men and women were asked “inappropriate personal questions about their sexual and relationship history during job interviews.”
Becoming more supportive of your LGBTQ staff—and by extension becoming more authentically inclusive—simply makes better business sense.
Inclusion is a mindset
Organisations can show their support in both formal and informal ways. HR leaders are of course in a strong position to effect change, and to ensure recruiting processes are merit-based. They can start by encouraging their employees’ significant others to enjoy benefits that used to be offered only to spouses. How an invitation to a company’s annual dinner is worded, for example, can go a long way towards helping an employee feel comfortable enough to come out.
Companies should also respect and encourage their staff to use the names and gender references they feel most comfortable with. This doesn’t just refer to LGBTQ staff. Thus, I’ve seen new names appear in an email thread a few times over my corporate career—only to realise that it was a female colleague who had decided to change her name following a marriage or divorce. How you name yourself is your choice, and one that should be respected.
Change can begin with one small step, and each of us can push the envelope one bit more. When I first asked (last century!) Singapore Airlines for a supplementary frequent flyer’s card for my longtime partner Mark, there was no response. After our civil union in 2001, I contacted the airline again with a copy of the civil union and we received the coveted supplementary card, for which we are most grateful. Check-in staff and aircrew over the years have had many occasion to notice, so I imagine our small victory could facilitate conversations: a brave crew member might approach his manager and say he would like the same benefits for his partner that a spouse would be entitled to.
Inclusion is a holistic mindset that goes beyond any one marginalised group. When Maurice Levy, Chairman of Publicis Groupe, visited our Singapore office years ago, he was shocked to see an “executive toilet”. The local agency changed it immediately into an annex of the creative department. (We all have our blind spots; I confess I had been using these—cleaner—facilities.)
Going beyond pinkwashing
Some companies that claim to support LGBTQ causes have been called out for monetising the rainbow or what has been widely known as “pinkwashing". Take for instance the recent incident at Singapore’s ParkRoyal Pickering Hotel, which turned down a lesbian couple’s wedding enquiry due to “regulations”. The good news is that there are numerous options for authentic, sincere service recovery. I’m sure the hotel has already thought to invite the couple back for a complimentary long honeymoon weekend. It could also support Pride activities throughout the year to show true allyship, and not just in June.
As a 2018 Economist white paper shared, demonstrating one’s LGBTQ commitment with credibility and depth can help attract staff and clients. Becoming more supportive of your LGBTQ staff—and by extension becoming more authentically inclusive—simply makes better business sense. It might make you slightly uncomfortable, but embracing this discomfort is the price of progress.
Conceptual artist Guillaume Levy-Lambert, who is #outandproud, is co-founder of The MaGMA Collection and of Art Porters Gallery in Singapore. He was previously Asia Pacific regional chairman at Publicis and Asia head of asset management and private banking at BNP Paribas. Guillaume is joint chapter chair of YPO Singapore (2022-23), together with Nichol Ng.
This piece is part of a collaboration between Tatler Asia and Young Presidents’ Organisation (YPO), a global leadership community of chief executives, which counts more than 30000 members from 142 countries among its members.