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Despite legislative and other changes, gay people still experience stigma, bias and missed opportunities for promotion in the workplace, one observer says. ‘We say we are ahead and we are not.’photo_chaz/iStock

In 2006, at age 40, bank executive Lawrence Spicer quietly announced he was gay to his family, close friends and a supportive boss.

But in 2014, he signalled his decision to become a visible leader on LGBTQ issues by participating in a workplace event put on by his employer, Royal Bank of Canada, on National Coming Out Day. In an in-house video, watched by an estimated 18,000 employees and yielding the highest number of viewings for an internal news story that year, Mr. Spicer went public about his sexual orientation.

Such a declaration is not a single event, observes Mr. Spicer, who has spent his entire 30-year career with RBC and now is its vice-president of audit, personal and commercial banking.

“People need to realize that coming out is not this once and done thing: You are always coming out,” he says. “If you are leading a business and you are meeting your next client, you would have to choose” whether to reveal your sexual orientation.

The ability to answer that question – in effect to be authentic without fear of reprisals – underpins a new program to be offered this October by the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston for senior leaders who self-identify as LGBTQ.

“How can people be their authentic selves in an organization and do it with confidence?” Tina Dacin, director of Smith’s Centre for Social Impact, asks. Its new week-long LGBTQ executive leadership program, believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, was “inspired” by a pioneering version successfully developed three years ago at Stanford University’s graduate school of business in California.

On issues of respect for sexual orientation in the workplace, “we say we are ahead and we are not,” she says. “That is the sad reality — we are not as far ahead as many would like to think.”

During the course, an expected cohort of 30 candidates from private and non-profit employers are to be taught traditional MBA material layered with diversity and inclusion topics, such as how to lead change, develop “authentic” leadership, manage one’s career and sharpen skills in negotiation, consensus-building and responding to conscious and unconscious bias. Tuition is about $6,000.

Beyond the academic component, Dr. Dacin says she hopes the program will nurture professional networking. “The biggest thing for the participants is that they will have a robust and engaged network of peers,” she says.

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RBC executive Lawrence Spicer, on the advisory committee to the new Queen’s program, says he found support throughout his career but he’s concerned for younger generations. ‘Generation X and millennials are coming out earlier but they are at more risk [than him]. They don’t have their education finished and they may not have stability around them.’Handout

Ultimately, Dr. Dacin aims to develop a similar program for leaders who are not gay but who want to work with the LGBTQ community to promote a welcoming workplace.

Despite legislative and other changes, she says, “on a day-to-day lived experience, [gay] people still experience a lot of obstacles, such as stigma, bias and opportunities for promotion.”

In his case, Mr. Spicer says he has earned promotions to increasingly senior positions in Canada and the Caribbean without exposure to bias or stigma. When he first came out after almost two decades with the bank, he credits the workplace tone set by his then-boss, Jennifer Tory (now RBC’s chief administrative officer). “She was an ally long before we had the label ally,” he says. “She created the environment.”

Since his decision to go public with his sexual identity, Mr. Spicer has become a national and globally recognized spokesman on LGBTQ issues. He is a graduate of the inaugural Stanford program, executive chairman of RBC Pride since 2014, a sponsor of youth awards and also serves on the advisory committee to the new Queen’s program. For the past two years, he has been the top Canadian on the Financial Times of London list of LGBTQ global business leaders.

He says what he found invaluable about the Stanford program — and what he hopes will be replicated at Queen’s — is the opportunity for participants to share their experiences.

“When you think about leadership development or developing executives to go to more senior positions in an organization, whether it is LGBTQ, women or other diversity groups, you have got to create networks,” he says. “You create contacts you can bounce ideas off for the next thing you are doing for a pitch or presentation. You have got to have the safe spaces.”

Mr. Spicer counts himself as fortunate in the career support he received at the bank before and after he came out. “I was in a stable relationship, had financial security, had my education and had a place to live. ... I wasn’t at risk,” he says. At work, he adds, “I had mentors around me and came up on the leadership track without revealing that [my sexual orientation].”

But he says younger members of the LGBTQ community still face hurdles at work. “Generation X and millennials are coming out earlier, but they are at more risk [than him],” he says. “They don’t have their education finished and they may not have stability around them.”

As a result, he says stress is a constant factor. “That is what it means to be gay in the world,” he says

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