Sorry, what did you say?

By Perry Miller

A while ago on a Teams call, one of the external consultants on a project I’m working on, referred to a strategy paper as ‘a bit gay’. They continued: ‘the trouble with it, is that it lacks conviction, there’s no killer blow, it’s all a bit limp’.

That was unexpected. So unexpected that no one, including me, said anything.  Which I’m generously going to put down to us all being a bit shocked by what we’d heard: ‘Did he really just say that?’ This wasn’t a teenager in front of their mates acting up, but a so-called industry professional.

What made that person think it was perfectly ok to use that word in a derogatory fashion in front of complete strangers in a professional setting? I’ll venture they gained the confidence to do it from using it in their own workplace without challenge.

Maybe they were emboldened by the judiciary’s recent verdict. In December 2020, the Court of Appeal concluded that ‘free speech encompasses the right to offend, and indeed to abuse another’.  In a case that concerned the misgendering of a trans woman on social media, the judges said it would be a ‘serious interference’ with the right of free speech if ‘those wishing to express their own views could be silenced by, or threatened with, proceedings for harassment based on subjective claims by individuals that felt offended or insulted’.

Cue hurrahs all round from sections of the media, including the Daily Mail which ran the headline ‘Victory in the war on woke.’

Fine, so if you’re keen to offend people, the world is apparently your oyster. But is that good business practice and will it win you friends? How many people on that call I was on, later questioned the ethics of the firm that person represented and whether they’d want to work with that individual in the future?

You have to wonder what their office culture is like: their rate of churn, their ability to recruit, their creativity. Maybe it’s a group of like-minded souls who rub along just fine, in which case: does my reaction matter?

Countless workplace surveys will tell you that it does and that if you want the very best, you need to work hard to attract them – and then keep them. The on-going pandemic has shown us, as a business, that a range of additional factors now weigh heavily on an individual’s decision to stay with, or join, us: flexible working patterns, remote working, a diverse team, mental health engagement are right up there with salary and prospects now. A people-first culture.

Commenting on the Deloitte Global Millenial Survey 2020 (June 2020), Michele Parmelee, Deloitte Global Chief People and Purpose Officer, noted that ‘companies must do more to demonstrate how they are positively impacting employees and society. Job loyalty rises as businesses address employee needs, from diversity and inclusion to sustainability to reskilling.’

Would any of my colleagues speak in the way that individual did? I’ve always smugly assumed not: I’m surrounded by great people – respectful, kind, liberal – and the position of our senior leadership team could not be clearer. But I say that with a confidence that comes with age and rank and I’m not sure if I’m doing younger colleagues any favours by sitting back and making those assumptions.

Which is why our nascent LGBT network at SEC Newgate is as much about visibility as it is about challenge and support. Visible to our LGBT colleagues and allies, to the wider team and to those yet to join the agency. Talent is a core value of ours that helps us hire ambitious people and deliver creative thinking for our clients.

As a group and an agency, we plan to host a number of events for colleagues and clients in the coming months in which we’ll look at the workplace, the use of language and very much affirm the importance of diversity.