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.