Ericsson’s Brian Johnson discusses his personal journey of being gay at work – and the important role that the company’s LGBTQ+ & Allies employee resource group played to help him share his authentic self at work.
Submitted by Ericsson
By Brian Johnson Head of Networks Build and Operate, Central Region Field Teams
As a leader at Ericsson, I know how important authenticity is. I’ve traveled all over the United States to meet with teams, and I constantly challenge people to make authentic connections. The goal in these connections is to break down barriers and change the way we think about our coworkers; to inspire everyone to truly care about each other in meaningful ways. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive; many people had and shared breakthrough moments.
After watching people share their authentic selves at work, I realized that I was not practicing what I preached. I had always been terrified to share that I was gay with anyone at work for fear of what it could do to my career.
I decided to join the Ericsson LGBTQ+ & Allies employee resource group (ERG). The community I found in this group was outstanding; the people were open, kind, and generous and helped me get comfortable with being myself at work.
During this time, I ran a monthly newsletter that was shared throughout the region. In May 2018, I decided to come out in a celebration of the upcoming Pride month. I wrote my story in the newsletter, including the ups and downs of sharing my authentic self at work and the community I’d found within the ERG; I even went so far as to include a picture of my husband and me (seen above).
When it came time to hit send, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. All the old fears about my career and my personal life resurfaced in a very real and terrifying way. I sat at my desk for several minutes just staring at the send button and overthinking everything that could happen from this. I realized I was in the middle of a panic attack. I left my desk and went on a walk. Fresh air, movement, and a mental break was exactly what I needed. When I returned to my desk, I took a deep breath and hit send.
It was terrifying to see that newsletter leave my inbox. In that moment, there was no turning back; everyone at work would know I was gay.
A few days later, I joined a panel for National Coming Out Day in the auditorium at the Plano, Texas campus. My husband came and sat in the audience. I was so anxious on stage, I don’t really remember what I said when I answered questions, but I’ll never forget when I pointed at my husband and my voice cracked in fear, everyone in the room stood and applauded in support. I was absolutely blown away. This journey has been terrifying, but the payoff has been immense. A weight has been lifted off my shoulders and people are coming to me for things I never imagined.
One of the unintended side effects of putting yourself on a public stage is how people come to you for advice or consult afterward. I’ve travelled across North America and met with people who want to know how to support loved ones who identify as LGBTQ+, transgender people who want advice on how to communicate with their boss and teammates and parents who ask how to support their non-binary children. In each case, with permission, I have found someone with more knowledge than me to offer support and resources; most of the time, it’s people within the LGBTQ+ & Allies ERG. It’s okay to not know everything about being LGBTQ+ because we are all so diverse. What’s important is that we treat everybody around us with respect and professionalism and we persevere in our curiosity to learn more and be better. Ericsson has fostered such an amazing community full of allies and helpful resources.
With all that great support and change I want to make sure you know the other side of that, at least for me, at Ericsson and in life in general. Some people are going to say that you should keep that to yourself, that it has no place at work and then give you a cold shoulder. And some people still think of a LGBTQ+ members as stereotypes and think that now that you have come out you should be comfortable to “act gayer”. In some people’s minds that means I should become flamboyant and start loving musicals and shopping, even though I cherish people who do love those things, that’s not who I am. I love community service, I love dogs, I love the outdoors, I really love working on my house and yard; in other words, I am humbly a unique gay man – we are not all the same. There is diversity in our diverse groups!
If you’re thinking about coming out at Ericsson, know that you are represented. It’s difficult to be vulnerable at work when you’re fighting centuries of prejudice and stereotypes, but rest assured you will have an abundance of support in our ERG and our ever-growing group of allies. For me, it lifted a giant burden from my heart, partly because “being found out” was no longer a worry, but also because it feels so good being able to not pretend that I have a wife or girlfriend to be accepted.
I love my company so much for embracing the LGBTQ+ community for all of who we are. I feel comfortable talking with my team and peers about my husband in casual conversations. My leadership team truly embraces both the LGBTQ+ community and me as an individual.
I don't think I would have ever come out if it weren't for what Niklas Heuveldop, our President of North America, did to allow us to start ERGs. I also owe a great deal to Kevin Zvokel, Head of Networks in North America, for what he has done putting his name, face, and reputation on the line to be our Executive Sponsor, using pronouns and a pride ring around his photo, and attending our Dallas pride parade with his wife. That meant a lot to so many.
My challenge to every leader reading is this: be a leader that has open conversations about diversity. When you ask your people, you will hear different and very important things about that person’s life experiences with diversity, some will be good, and some will be devasting. Knowing those things helps you support your people in a completely different way. Embrace your employees’ diversity journey and the daily battles that they have fought and still fight to overcome. Their stories are important!
Building a strong company culture of inclusion, acceptance and diversity starts with leadership; it’s crucial that every employee feels safe and valued regardless of who they are. Therefore, its best to open the conversation with a note of assurance that they are in a safe place to express curiosity and vulnerability.
The truth has set me free. For those of you who are thinking of coming out as LGBTQ+, here is my advice:
From my perspective, if we can open up a little more with each other and share our stories, our real stories, that’s what breaks down real barriers. But to do that you have to believe your story has value. For a long time, I didn’t believe my story had value, especially at work. Today I hope my story has value for you. I don’t consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others, so I am putting myself “out” there for the next generation.
Here’s to your authentic journey at Ericsson. Go be your amazing self!
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