Your Edge Blog Team: Mike, first off, we want to congratulate you on being named a “Notable LGBTQ Executive for 2019” by Crain’s Chicago Business! What a huge honor! It’s also a testament to the meaningful work that you’re doing with ZEAL. Clearly, this new Inclusion and Diversity initiative has had a powerful impact on people’s lives.
Can you tell us a little more about the history of ZEAL? How did it get started? And how did you get involved?
Mike: First of all, thank you for the kind words. It is an honor. I’m hopeful that having a Zebra leader recognized as a notable LGBTQ+ executive gives our employees further permission to be their authentic selves in the workplace and that this recognition puts Zebra on the map in the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community.
Last year, I had lunch with a previous colleague. During lunch, he came out to me and explained that his comfort in coming out as an openly gay man was attributed to the shadow I cast as an openly gay leader at Zebra. He saw that I was authentic about who I was at work and that people embraced my authenticity; being part of the LGBTQ+ community did not prevent me from playing a lead role at the Fortune 1000 company. It showed him that he can be authentic about himself while achieving his own professional goals. I was flattered that something I did (albeit, unknowingly) helped someone to feel comfortable being his true self. But that same summer, I also witnessed a very private and secretive LGBTQ+ Pride event, which made me realize how few people are comfortable being their authentic selves. It showed me that we have some work to do. Between these two very different stories, I realized we had a huge opportunity to create an environment where people could feel safe being their authentic selves at work. Following the example set by the Women’s Inclusion Network (WIN) that had already been established at Zebra, setting up an LGBTQ+ inclusion network made sense. And as a leader at Zebra who is part of the LGBTQ+ community, I took it as my obligation to make the next move.
Beginning in January this year, I coordinated with human resources (HR) and WIN leaders to begin building a core team who would help launch ZEAL, including Mike Underwood who joined me as a co-leader for ZEAL. This team has been great, and it has invested a lot of time and energy building out the ZEAL program.
Your Edge Blog Team: ZEAL was warmly welcomed by Zebras around the world. What do you attribute to its fast embrace by employees?
Mike: A study was done by the Human Rights Campaign in the United States that revealed only 46 percent of LGBTQ+ workers are authentic about themselves in the workplace. With the launch of ZEAL, Zebra is doing more than just recognizing its LGBTQ+ employees. It is also initiating a set of activities which we hope will create an environment where all Zebras may feel safe being authentic about themselves at work. The impact that this has on our LGBTQ+ community is significant. Our LGBTQ+ colleagues have told us that, in some cases, this is the first time a company has respected them for who they are. The launch of ZEAL has enabled many of our LGBTQ+ colleagues to feel safe being their true selves, knowing that the company is behind them. Of course, there is more work for us to do, but this represents a meaningful start for our LGBTQ+ family at Zebra!
But LGBTQ+ inclusion doesn’t just impact the LGBTQ+ community. Rather, its impacts are far reaching. Even before we announced the launch of ZEAL, so many people reached out, not only to better understand what we were building, but to explain why this was important to them. We heard from allies who were proud parents, proud siblings and proud friends who each told stories about the love they had for an LGBTQ+ family member or friend and how important it was that Zebra be a place where this family member or friend would feel safe. I knew that this was an important program for Zebra, but after several conversations with Zebra allies that honestly brought me to tears, I was shocked by the emotional power behind this program. There is a lot riding on us (the ZEAL core team building the program) to make this successful.
Of course, there remains some skepticism about what we are trying to do with ZEAL and a belief that this program only involves LGBTQ+ employees, but I’m hopeful that over time, and with continued education and awareness, this will diminish.
Your Edge Blog Team:You’ve spoken several times about authenticity now. Can you explain in more detail what “authenticity” really means and why it is so important for Zebra’s LGBTQ+ employees?
Mike: Often the question asked is “why it is so important that people announce their sexual orientation or gender identity?” They want to know how such information has anything to do with work. But what’s important to remember is that being authentic is about being your true self. Being authentic isn’t about making an announcement, but rather feeling comfortable to be your true self at work without repercussion. You should be able to speak freely about who you are as a person; you should not have to feel as though you must disguise yourself as someone else or hide parts of your life. Only when we create an environment that welcomes authenticity do we truly embolden our LGBTQ+ employees to achieve their true potential.
When I started at Zebra, I wasn’t sure how people would perceive me if they knew I was gay. So, I stayed quiet about it at work. But that took so much energy: hiding what I did on the weekend, not talking about vacations for fear that I would be asked who I was travelling with and dodging questions about marriage, relationships and kids, among many other things. Conversations that could reveal your sexual orientation or gender identity come up every day. This impacted my ability to build relationships as well as my own self confidence. I found that I would completely erase from my life the person most important to me, my then boyfriend (now husband) from the time I arrived until the time I left the office.
And for transgender employees, authenticity means being true to your vision for how you want to live your life, rather than letting society dictate the terms of your identity—how you express, see and understand yourself. It’s about being totally honest with yourself so you can be your best at work and elsewhere; not being afraid to accept yourself for who you are, even if some people cannot. Transgender employees must view their workplace as a safe place to be themselves. Many people don’t realize that, throughout history, trans people have been held in great esteem in various indigenous cultures. But in present-day Western cultures they are often pathologized and invalidated. Can you imagine your mere existence being declared an illness, illegal, untrue or unacceptable? And then still be expected to be an engaged and productive employee?
Being authentic facilitates confidence and trust and enables our employees to better connect with their colleagues. Encouraging individuals to be their authentic selves also improves a company’s overall culture, which can improve employee engagement, morale and retention.
The organization Out Now did a study in 2015 and showed that employees who feel safe being authentic in the workplace are 30 percent more engaged than those who are not. So, it’s more than just the right thing to do – creating a safe place for people to feel engaged. It also makes good business sense.
Your Edge Blog Team: What are some of the ways that ZEAL supports employees? Can you detail some of programs and resources that the Inclusion Network provides?
Mike: ZEAL’s mission is to promote a safe, inclusive and supportive work environment for Zebra’s LGBTQ+ employees and their allies, such that everyone may be authentic about themselves in the workplace and empowered to reach their full potential. It’s meant to be more than a gathering place for LGBTQ+ employees and more than flying the Pride flag. We’ve heard from our employees about the importance of this program and the need to focus on education and awareness. They’ve also indicated the desire – and need – for a support and advocacy network for LGBTQ+ employees and allies. This is going to take time, but we are committed to these core objectives.
In June, we rolled out a series of monthly coffee chats open to all Zebras, scheduled for the third Wednesday each month. These interactive web-based meetings focus on a different topic impactful to the LGBTQ+ community and its allies each month. They range from the importance of authenticity, to understanding what it means to be transgender, how to be an ally and more.
We are also in the early stages of planning out a series of periodic in-person panel discussions at different offices focused on an array of topics, some of which will be co-facilitated with other inclusion networks such as WIN.
But this is just the beginning; there are so many more programs coming in the future.
Your Edge Blog Team: We understand that ZEAL has also engaged with some non-profits to support others in the LGBTQ+ community. Can you tell us more about that?
Mike: That’s correct. Right off the bat, we knew it was important to engage in the communities that we serve. We have a lot more to do in this regard, but beginning in June, ZEAL coordinated with Zebra Community Relations to establish a relationship with Howard Brown Health (HBH), a Chicago-based, non-profit focused on eliminating the disparities in healthcare experienced by LGBTQ+ people. In a single two-hour fundraising event, Zebra employees raised more than $1,500 for HBH, which Zebra then matched! We also initiated our first volunteer effort with HBH, which served as an opportunity to provide back to the community and gave our LGBTQ+ employees and allies a unique opportunity to network. We are coordinating with HBH on future volunteer opportunities and exploring other possible programs with HBH which may tap into the skills and value proposition that Zebra provides. We also hope to expand our reach further into global communities. Zebra colleagues in other offices around the world will be working to support additional non-profits and secure additional volunteer opportunities within their local communities.
Your Edge Blog Team: What’s next for ZEAL? What’s the vision for the next 12 months?
Mike: We really do have a lot to do still. The launch of ZEAL is just the start. Our aim over the next twelve months is to introduce additional education and awareness programs that reach more broadly beyond the LGBTQ+ employees. We will also continue to focus on building out a support network and an advocacy program that will bring LGBTQ+ needs and opportunities to Zebra’s leadership. This program is not meant to exclusively engage LGBTQ+ employees, however. It is vitally important that we reach all of Zebra, as every single employee plays a role in making a workplace feel safe for someone to be their authentic self. We will also be looking at ways to engage the broader Zebra community through cross-inclusion network activities, networking and awareness events targeted at the Zebra community at large, among other such programs.
Our ultimate goal is to make Zebra an employer of choice in the LGBTQ+ community.
Your Edge Blog Team: If you could give one piece of advice to companies that may want to emulate Zebra’s efforts – whether with ZEAL or other Inclusion & Diversity initiatives – what would that be?
Mike: Carefully craft the mission and objectives for each of your inclusion networks and make them specific to the needs of the company and the needs of the people whom the inclusion network is meant to represent. And as you build out your programs and activities, align them with this mission and these objectives. Yes, you will want to have some fun along the way, but make the inclusion network meaningful so as to drive the company forward. And remember, the inclusion network must be inclusive to all. Those who are allies to a specific inclusion area may be some of the most important participants of that inclusion network.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about Zebra’s commitment to Inclusion and Diversity in our recent Ask the Expert interview with Steve Williams. We also encourage you to stay tuned here on Your Edge to learn about future I&D initiatives.
Want to learn more about Zebra’s other Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives? Read these blogs.