Being Gay in Consulting
"Being Gay in Consulting
By Paula Cobb
My brain was in a riot when I first came out at work. I was being courted by a smaller firm, and the managing partner suggested, "Let's have dinner. In fact, why don't you bring your boyfriend and I'll bring my husband, and we'll make a night of it." Time slowed, the Earth paused in its progress about the sun, and I replied, "Well I can bring my girlfriend. I'll check whether she's free." A few days later, after two of the partners and their spouses had charmed my girlfriend (and me) at dinner, I accepted their offer and made the leap.
What is it like to be gay in the consulting industry? This week's Section Q pulls from conversations with six consultants, with experience being out and being closeted at six different consulting firms, to answer (or raise) some of the common questions.
Consulting is a progressive industry. Most firms hold gay recruiting dinners, most have non-discrimination clauses, and many offer domestic partner benefits. "Consulting is such a meritocracy, if you're good at what you do it's just so unimportant," said Arly Kjellstad (HBS '98), a veteran of two firms. But a closeted consultant who agreed that in many respects consulting was a "welcoming environment" said he still felt subtle pressures to be discreet. "I think discrimination in this day and age will not take place explicitly, it'll be through the very subtle attitudes. No one's afraid their boss or coworker will stand up in the cafeteria and say 'You're gay, get out of this company,' But who's to say if you get a 2.5 instead of a [maximum] 3 on your performance review? On the margin you simply never know."
Deciding not to be out
Many consultants spent time in the closet early in their careers. Adrian Coppini (HBS '98), a manager with AT Kearney who is out today, explained that he was not out when he originally joined that firm before business school. "I wasn't very comfortable with myself [when I was] an analyst, I was very young."
Another former analyst confided, "It was my first job out of college, and I just had no clue." There were no openly gay people in his office, and he stayed closeted there. "My office was a very young, married office - a lot of the office social events were 'bring your spouse and the new baby.' It made it more difficult for me."
Geography and culture also play a role. As a Norwegian working in a London office, Kjellstad chose not to be out when he first worked in consulting before HBS. "I was a foreigner in a new land anyway, and I didn't want to be any more different. Even in generally friendly firms, some offices are better than others, but in South America, Southern Europe, and Asia I've heard there have been problems."
Out at the office
"In any job, you want to be known as someone who's good at what you do," said Coppini. "My advice would be to [come out] in as natural a way as possible - not to get on a soapbox about it, but to work it in as it comes up." When Russell Braterman, NH, interviewed at the small marketing consulting firm where he worked before HBS, he wanted to test the environment of the company. "I went to my second interview wearing an AIDS ribbon on my outercoat, and figured if they then offered me the job then they must be reasonably okay with it."
Though Imtiyaz Hussein, NF, wasn't explicitly out on his resume when he applied for summer jobs, "anyone who was reading my resume with a careful eye would have picked up the hints." McKinsey did, and when he visited for his sell day "every person I met with went out of their way to let me know how cool they and the office were on the gay issue. Then that night ten of my future colleagues took me out to a gay Latin dance club."
At Price Waterhouse Coopers, Kjellstad waited until after getting the offer, then came out. "I didn't say it in my interviews, or put it on my resume, but I think there was no issue. It depends on the company and the culture, but the key thing is that if you're comfortable with yourself, other people will be comfortable too."
Many consultants return to the closet when they visit clients. "I thought it was on the edge of being political" to come out to clients, Braterman said, "so didn't do it."
But being out with clients is becoming increasingly common. Coppini explained, "Fundamentally we're in business. My relationship with my clients is whatever will help that relationship. With a few of them, it's really helped to speak at a personal level, and when that's the case then I'm also typically open. If you're not open, people can sense the distrust."
Gays have fewer role models and mentors. "In the company magazine every month you see the new partners," said one analyst. "And seemingly every one of them poses with their spouse and as many children as they can cram into the picture. You get the sense that all of the role models are married, and that being married portrays a more stable professional existence."
Coppini pointed out, though, that while most minorities are under-represented at the top, the consulting industry is friendlier than most. "Consultants are a highly-educated group, and on the main, you have people who are very intelligent. There is still a way to go, though, and firms are working to improve things. We're working very hard at Kearney to make the environment even better. Part of it's just educating on diversity. Speaking personally, I've had no problems."
"I'm so much more successful now [being out], it's such a relief," said Coppini. "And I think it's easier earlier than later." If people get to know you and then find out you're gay several years later, that's "less trust that people have in you because you've held something back from them. It's a very personal decision, but I would encourage people to be open at work.""
<Note from JobFairy.com: The official Job Fairy stance used to be to keep it to yourself. And that's still not bad advice - any personal details of your life should be earned by those who are worthy of your trust, regardless of orientation. We now advise that you should be matter of fact about the situation. Act as if it's the most perfectly normal thing in the entire world to have a spouse of the same gender. You want to puncture the bubble of gossip and deflate your co-workers' ability to speculate and snicker behind your back. Be professional and do not answer intrusive questions about your personal life. Would you ask these prying questions of your straight colleagues? You can deflect the tacky with this comment, "Well, that's certainly not something I would discuss with a business colleague." Or, "That doesn't sound like a work-related matter." And stick to your guns.>