We asked Sebastian Kuemmel, head of CRM and personalisation at PetCulture, and #17 in this year’s Top 50 People in E-Commerce, what it’s like to be out and proud in the retail industry, and how businesses can better support their LGBTQIA+ staff.
Inside Retail: What has your experience been like as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community in the retail industry? Have you always felt welcome and supported in the workplace?
Sebastian Kuemmel: When I landed my first job 11 years ago, I didn’t feel comfortable coming out at work or talking about my personal life straight away. Fortunately, a lot has changed since then, and I’ve been lucky to work in an industry that generally tends to appreciate diversity and foster inclusion.
However, over the years, I’ve had to correct people on assumptions about my personal life, had superiors asking me about my sexual orientation and received remarks about my appearance by colleagues and customers.
We’ve made some good progress over the last years, and these incidents happen a lot less (at least to me) as a result of people being more aware and educated. Today, I’m also confident enough to politely call people out if it does happen. But it hasn’t always been easy, and I know it’s not the same for everyone. More than half of LGBTQIA+ Aussies are still hiding their sexuality at work, so we still have a long way to go.
IR: I know you’re passionate about LGBTQIA+ issues. Can you share some of the things you’re doing to make your workplace more inclusive for the community?
SK: For me it’s all about visibility and awareness. I’m hoping to have an impact by being ‘out and proud’ and open about my personal life and experiences – both on social media and in real life. At work, I draw attention to LGBTQIA+ events and related organisations – Pride month, IDAHOT or Wear It Purple Day, to name just a few.
There are many LGBTQIA+ calendar events and organisations that don’t get enough attention, and I’d like to think that raising awareness, starting a conversation and trying to be a good role model makes a big difference. People are generally supportive and keen to get involved.
IR: You also mentor young LGBTQIA+ professionals. What are the biggest challenges they face?
SK: While there is an incredible amount of change happening, it’s no secret that we’re still living in a largely straight, male-dominated society. This causes a range of issues, but it is particularly challenging for young queer people trying to navigate everything from their first interview to salary negotiations and career development.
Despite their huge potential, I see a lot of self-doubt in young LGBTQIA+ professionals because growing up and playing a version of yourself to avoid humiliation and prejudice takes a toll on your self-esteem.
A lot of young queer people are still trying to figure out who they really are, and while many of them come out on the other side as stronger and more authentic versions of themselves, it’s often a long struggle that straight (often male) leaders don’t understand, or aren’t equipped to deal with.
The consequences are less positive experiences for queer people, which in turn impacts motivation, productivity and mental health, and often has a negative effect on inclusion and career development.
IR: What are some of the most important things businesses can do to better support their LGBTQIA+ staff?
SK: Be supportive, listen and be genuine – not just on paper. Despite prominently displayed signs of progress and support, many challenges for LGBTQIA+ people still persist. Because when it comes to true inclusion, everyday interactions with peers and leaders matter as much as theoretic policies and formal processes.
I think sometimes there is a sentiment of ‘we’ve come so far, what more do you want’, but in a lot of areas, we’ve only just scratched the surface – support for trans people being just one of them.
The biggest step towards change for queer employees is for their peers and managers to understand (and be empathetic towards) their struggles. Reverse mentoring is a great way to achieve this.
IR: I know you’ve spoken out about the issue of rainbow washing. What would you like to say to retailers about this?
SK: It’s been amazing to see so many retailers come out in support of Pride month and driving real change over the last years. At the same time – looking at the amount of rainbow logos in my LinkedIn feed – it has become increasingly difficult to separate between brands that are truly supportive of LGBTQIA+ causes and ones that are just here to make a quick buck and boost engagement on social media.
Initiatives around Pride and LGBTQIA+ representation should not be solely driven by marketing, and I don’t think they should be used for profit. As a marketer myself, I see how it can be tempting to jump on the rainbow bandwagon but unless support is happening year-round, is tangible and linked to a clear mission statement, it can easily seem disingenuous.
Over the last weeks and months, we’ve seen abhorrent attacks on our community – from the exclusion of trans people from sports to physical assaults and shootings at Pride events. Sadly, a lot of businesses are happy to benefit from Pride month but are surprisingly silent when it comes to real issues facing LGBTQIA+ people.