ED FAIRHURST IS OPENLY GAY AND IS ONE OF THE SENIOR SPONSORS FOR THE LGBT NETWORK, SHELL UK (OF WHICH HE IS EX-CHAIR), AND IS ACCOUNTABLE FOR PLANNING SHELL’S SUPPLY CHAIN ACROSS EUROPE, MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA. HE LIVES IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND WITH HIS PARTNER OF 24 YEARS, AND TALKS TO US ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF BRINGING YOUR WHOLE SELF TO WORK.
Why do you think it’s important for LGBT Senior Leaders to be visible?
Being openly gay at work can feel like a career risk and can stop people from “coming out”. This lost opportunity for the individual and for the business is such a waste. By being visible, LGBT leaders make a clear statement that being gay doesn’t need to limit you.
As I’ve become more senior, in age and job, I reflect that although I’ve been “out” at work for many years, I could have been more bold. If, by talking about being openly gay in a leadership role at Shell, I can help others to overcome the fear of coming out; or be more bold to be themselves, that would make me very happy!
Why is it important for people to feel comfortable to be out at work?
People perform better when they can be themselves. If fear of reaction from those we work with means that we don’t feel free to be open about who we are, that’s a huge problem. For me, when people learn I’m gay, they understand me better and that builds trust.
What risks and opportunities have arisen in your career by being openly gay?
Risks and opportunities are two sides of the same coin. There is a risk of being out at work and I won’t pretend there haven’t been a few challenges over the years. Like most LGBT people I’ve had to deal with prejudice. However I think that how we respond to such challenges is key to enabling opportunities to result.
What are some personal examples?
In a role in a previous company, after I told my new line manager I was gay, the relationship changed immediately and I found myself looking for a job. A senior leader in that same business hired me and gave my career a whole new dimension.
Another example, with a funny outcome, is during a course where participants had to provide a
biography. Mine was changed when they printed it. The reference to my Civil Partner had been edited out. When I questioned the course leader about it, I was informed that “People don’t want to read that sort of thing about your private life!” Needless to say, I took the opportunity to give that course leader some very clear coaching.
A nice opportunity was helping an ex-boss who wanted some advice because he didn’t know what to say to his 16-year-old son who had just come out to him. I think the situation that felt most risky was when I was a lot younger. I was a shift supervisor in a food factory. One of my lines had broken down and I called for maintenance on a radio handset. All production, maintenance and quality teams shared the same frequency, so everybody could hear everything. My request was met by an ultraeffeminate
epetition of what I had said. Although I felt vulnerable, I realised it was a make or break
moment for me. I responded to the “impersonator” by telling him I was standing next to the filling machine on Line 4 and that he should come and repeat it to my face. Radio silence followed!
Any advice for someone who is LGBT in their company?
Be bold about who you are and don’t let others define you. If you’re authentic and true to yourself, everything else will fall into place.
What is your perspective on other minorities within the workplace?
Every minority faces unique challenges that most people just aren’t aware of. For me, this awareness is the first step to creating a genuinely inclusive workplace for all.
What do you think about the concept of Straight Allies?
Straight colleagues have a critical role to play in the creation of gay-friendly workforces; by actively taking responsibility. The impact of Straight Allies speaking up is absolutely enormous.
Any advice for Straight Allies?
Many people want to support but don’t know how to get involved or don’t want to say the wrong
thing. Don’t be afraid of using the word “gay”, there are no special skills nor special politically correct language; it’s just about ensuring that everyone is treated with respect.
How does Shell show its colours to the outside world?
I’m very proud that our organisation flies the Rainbow Flag from its UK headquarters building, next to the London Eye, where everyone can see it during Pride week.