For me, as a director in a family business, 2020 will not be the year of a pandemic, or Brexit, or Trump. It will be the year the world finally, collectively, really started to make big leaps in being diverse.
At every turn in the past 12 months, we have learnt that judging by the media was not kind. That in a western democracy you can still be killed by law enforcement for the colour of your skin. That the Catholic Church finally acknowledges that a man can love another man. But I’ve also learnt the hard way how business leaders should respond to homophobia. And that started with making a poor decision.
In February I received a derogatory text message about me. Sent by an employee who was trying to get a job for a friend of his which I was organising, but apparently not quick enough. An employee working in a division of our group of companies which was not performing particularly well, where I was working day and night to make sure the employees in that business had a future, had their mortgages paid and we kept trading. It really made me question why I bothered turning up to work each day to fight for them.
You might have expected me to act on receiving a text like this – my friends and family would have expected me to. As a director of a company turning over £20m and employing some 150 people at the time, you’d have expected the full force of my position to be felt by someone who thought it appropriate to send that text. In truth had the text not been sent to me, had it been to another member of staff or a friend I would have acted. But because it was to me, I thought I was different, that I was 'man' enough to brush it off. I made a poor decision and shamefully I did not act, I did nothing, I buried it. For many reasons, but primarily because I didn’t want to be known as the guy that fired someone because he got a homophobic text. I did not want to be defined as gay or someone that cared about being gay and drew attention to this fact. Ultimately and honestly, I was bothered and scared of what my staff, my colleagues, my peers might think of me. I failed to think about what they might think of me for not acting and allowing this assault to go unchecked.
That day, that decision not to act meant I failed. I had a position and a platform to do something about it. And I did nothing.
I failed to stand up for the many gay people around the world who receive this abuse every day.
I failed my community.
I failed my friends who expected more of me.
I failed my loyal and trusting staff who would expect me to stamp this out.
I failed as a director and as a leader in our business.
I failed to stand and be counted.
Most importantly I failed to stand up for who I was. As a 28-year-old I could not stand up for myself or my sexuality. I was unable to simply tell an ignorant member of staff that they were wrong and if they wanted a place in our business these comments were not acceptable.
It is amazing to think now that at the start of 2020 I did not know that. Or that I knew it but had not properly thought about how I should behave or act when put in this position. It took the socially poignant events of 2020 to educate me.
Failures and mistakes happen every day in business and I am a firm believer in judging people on how they deal with them, not the mistake itself. Learning from your mistakes is a hugely critical skill.
I have learnt the most important lesson I could learn – I am a member of a diverse community and I have a platform and I must use it! Use it carefully and wisely, but use my position to affect change, call out ignorance and educate. If 2020 wasn’t the year to learn or do just that then I don’t know what is.
So I decided to take an idea and put it into action. I used my position to make a statement, to start a conversation and to educate. I took 20 tonnes of earthmoving steel – a Caterpillar D6 bulldozer – and wrapped it in PRIDE colours for all to see. This machine is not just about my own experience, it seeks to address an issue in the construction industry – a total lack of diverse understanding.
I am proud to say we made a very public statement which has raised debate, educated, and brought about conversation both in our business and further afield. The PRIDE dozer has been sent out to our construction sites to act as a permanent reminder to anyone that diversity should be everywhere. That you should be able to come to work, go about your life with acceptance and love. While it should be the reserve of all humans to be diverse it appears in this instance a small family business based in Northamptonshire is using its platform to help ensure the conversation continues. When we launched this initiative, we received a fair share of hate on social media, but we received a lot more love.
I hope this statement, this colourful beacon in all its diverse glory serves as the positive learning to others for my mistake. I hope it teaches all who have a position to affect diversity to use it. In 2021 it does not matter how big or small your organisation – family-owned, or stock market listed. One employee or one million. Every single business, indeed, every single human has a responsibility to be diverse, every single day of their lives.