For a video and description of the panel event, click here.
For an infographic of the event, click here

LGBTQ workers often struggle with coming out and feeling safe in the workplace. For many people, the decision to come out is contingent on whether they perceive the environment to be inclusive. This is where allies can step in by taking a stand and creating a culture of safety. We discussed these issues on a panel hosted jointly by The Letters, a student group that is home to the LGBTQ community and allies at the Rotman School of Management, and by Rotman’s Institute for Gender + the Economy. Top leaders in various fields discussed how allyship is fundamental to leadership.

The session was introduced by Ed Clark, former CEO of TD who, in addition to being one of the most accomplished business leaders in Canada, is a visible champion of the LGBTQ community, having spearheaded same sex benefits at TD and recently establishing the Egale shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth in Toronto. The panel discussion included: Ken Fredeen, General Counsel, Secretary to the Board and member of the leadership team at Deloitte LLP, and also President and a founding member of Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusion; Deborah Richardson, Deputy Minister in the Ontario Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation; Sandeep Tatla, Assistant Vice President and Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Manulife; and, Jennifer Tory, Group Head, Personal and Commercial Banking at RBC and recipient of Start Proud’s (formerly Out on Bay) 2016 Leading Executive Ally Award for her long standing support of the LGBTQ community. The discussion was moderated by Professor Sarah Kaplan, Director of Rotman’s Institute for Gender + the Economy. The panelists shared their experiences in being allies, and agreed that being an inclusive leader is an essential leadership characteristic. The points below summarize the main themes and takeaways from the discussion.

1. Being an ally means taking risks.

Although most people associate risk primarily with coming out at the workplace, being an ally also involves taking risks. Being an ally means moving from being a passive to an active bystander.

Being an ally means moving from being a passive to an active bystander

As an ally, advocating for rights often means having to stand up to someone more senior or having to push against a bureaucracy that may not be receptive. This might require that you speak out in a meeting when someone makes an inappropriate comment, which might feel especially risky if that comment comes from someone more senior in the organization. Yet, the panelists suggested that these actions are often less risky than anticipated. That is, people who make insensitive remarks or exclude an LGBT person from consideration for a key role are often open to feedback. They likely do not intend to be exclusionary; rather, they fumble with using inclusive language or may not have realized that their actions were exclusionary. Speaking up can actually open the door for a conversation about these issues, whereas staying silent means that the problems will not be addressed. Importantly, speaking up often gives you authority and credibility as a leader because you are seen as being willing to take a stand for others.

The panelists emphasized that leaders have to be prepared to be tested. One speaker described the customer and employee pressure that came from a corporate decision to support the Toronto Pride Parade. Competitors campaigned against the organization; some customers defected; employees complained when it affected their ability to hit their sales targets. But, this leader took the long perspective, feeling that inclusiveness was a core value, refused to back down, and went as far as suggesting employees resistant to those values leave the organization.

2. Coming out as an ally

Because of these risks, some people may feel hesitant to be visible as an ally. Yet, one panelist suggested that people in positions of pr