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Come out, come out, however you are…

“Bringing your whole-self to work”…what does this actually mean? Not leaving a limb at the reception on the way in, or the site office when signing in?

It is becoming (in my view) a slightly over-used phrase within the drive to recruit diverse candidates into roles. Recruiters, hiring managers, culture teams use it to describe their aspiration that no one should be put off joining an organisation because they cannot be open about all aspects of their identity.

This could be people being open about any disabilities they might have, their sexual orientation or gender identity, any caring responsibilities they might have, any mental health issues and so forth. The reality is however that we have a long way to go before people will open up. But why is this so?

Trust. It takes time to establish, and build. People need to see people like themselves in your organisation. This goes for both the current workforce, and future workforce. Retention, attrition and attraction are all affected by this.

Role models play a part in being culture conduits. Want statistics on the performance of diverse teams being better for the bottom line? Fabulous, meaningful…but how dry! People connect with personal stories, and the more of us there are sharing our stories about our difference, opening up about challenges and barriers we have faced, the more we will humanise the business, brand, industry (etc.).

This goes for people at all levels, of all backgrounds, and especially from executive / senior leadership teams.

After a career in engineering as a technical safety engineer working in oil and gas, defence and construction, I realised that “diversity” only really meant advancement of cis-gendered women. Very important, but there is more to diversity. Hence, being a gay engineer, I set up InterEngineering in 2014 to connect, inform and empower LGBT+ engineers and supporters. This professional network now has well over 1,000 engineers across the UK and we are active across five regional groups in London, South West, Midlands, North West and North Wales.

Due to growing demand for a diversity-based platform in engineering and tech, I set up EqualEngineers in 2017 to connect inclusive employers with diverse talent in engineering and tech. We achieve this through our careers events series (in-person and online) and our jobs board EqualEngineersJobs. We promote opportunities to female; ethnic minority; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender; and disabled candidates, as well as to people from low socioeconomic backgrounds or not in education, employment or training.

A common theme I have observed from running my events is a real under-confidence in people from the above communities. The soft skills for positively engaging in a conversation, coming across as professional and approachable can be lacking. And hence these candidates forego opportunities because they do not get through the net.

Mental health and wellbeing is a big focus now, and quite rightly so. I spoke at the 2018 Women in Construction & Engineering Awards judging day on a leadership panel about the effects of negative mental health and wellbeing on men in the construction industry, the fact that suicide rates are 3.7 times the national average. I was overwhelmed with the response of the audience…women opening up about the experiences of their partners, sons, fathers, friends and colleagues. From this, I initiated the EqualEngineers Masculinity in Engineering survey in Q4 2018, and from over 800 respondents, a staggering 20% answered “yes” to the question “have you ever self-harmed or considered committing suicide?”. [Full report to follow later in 2019].

There is an epidemic here. Helping men be vulnerable, challenging stereotypes about expectations and opening up about their mental state, I believe, will be a fast-way to help men find their voice as part of the diversity conversation. It will help create more open conversations around difference, as opposed to such conversations being perceived as a threat, or a blame of the current state of affairs.

So, in the spirit of the title, I would encourage you to be open about anything on your mind. Anything which is causing you distress, affecting your productivity in work, or possibly contributing to a presenteeism in your job. Come out about it. If you are a leader or manager, how can you get your colleagues to be open with you, and voice any concerns? Have you been trained by your HR team to handle any difficult situations? By creating an open culture, we are more likely to challenge cultural stereotypes, attract a more diverse workforce, and retain the people we have.

Note: this does not mean that we forego all privacy at work, and there is an expectation that everyone should be open about everything. The right to disclose / open up should rest with the individual, and this is what is meant around “bringing your whole-self to work”, both in body and mind. It’s the culture of your organisation which should not prohibit people from being open. If we can arrive at a point where this is the case, then the future of work will radically change for the better.

Thought-piece written by Dr Mark McBride-Wright CEng MIChemE, Founder and Managing Director of EqualEngineers.

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