He is one of LGBT Great’s role models, and sat down with IA as part of our support of Pride month, to talk about how his sexuality has impacted his career.
Upwards and forward
Deon came to the UK 17 years ago from South Africa to pursue his passion for modelling. But shortly after he found a job at a call centre where he developed management skills that landed him his first job in the financial services industry.
“I got a call from an agency saying: ‘we’ve got this role for you and we’ve sent your CV to Barclays and they are very interested in meeting you’,” he said.
“So, I went for the interview and got offered the job straight away.
“My career was really flying with Barclays, and when they closed the branch [I was working at] I ended up getting a place in the City, in the private wealth arm where I was managing a team.”
Do I belong there?
Subsequently, Deon moved into private banking, and that’s when things started to change.
“That was a different world to me, because at work I was the only ethnic minority [person], and people look at you like you don’t actually belong there.
“But I said, ‘I’m going to make this work for me’”.
However, that feeling of not belonging was also emphasised by the fact that Deon was not ‘out’ at work yet.
“People kind of suspected, but no one was brave enough to ask the question.”
But he did not come out because he was afraid his professional life would have suffered.
“I was protecting my career and I was trying to build my reputation around.”
Taking the choice away
“I wanted to be judged for my output instead of my sexuality and labels that people put on me,” Deon admitted.
Then he received a call from another agency, which led him to join Legal & General.
“I came in and I was getting recognition in terms of the work that I was putting on,” he said.
But that was all overshadowed at a work event a couple of years after he joined the firm.
“Somebody basically outed me,” Deon said in a half-hushed voice, showing how upsetting the event still is to him.
‘Banter’ can hurt
“I was actually shocked. We walked out of the bar and this guy started screaming ‘oh you like men!’.
“And I was just standing there, because, how do you react?
“So I stopped and said ‘maybe I do, but not men like you’, and I walked off, but I was in a state.”
When Deon reported the incident to his boss the next day, he was told not to make a big deal out of it and “it was dismissed as banter”.
He didn’t pursue it any further because the guy had already handed in his resignation and was going to leave the company soon.
“It was the most pointless thing to create drama, and everyone else would have started talking about me and I would have become this negative person,” he admitted.
Just the beginning
But this wasn’t an isolated incident.
Deon was also involved in the company’s fitness boot camp, which, he told IA, he loved going to.
“One day I was in the changing room getting dressed, and this guy said to me, ‘are you looking at other naked men?’, in a room full of people getting dressed.
“It made me feel very uncomfortable. So, I stopped doing boot camp, because I didn’t want to be in that situation.
“I had to remove myself from it.
“I thought I was always compromising myself because of other people, to try to fit in and be normal.”
Deon said that after all this, he felt like his career was “stagnating”, with no upward direction, for around two years.
“That prompted me to work harder,” he told IA.
“I was working probably three times harder than everybody else to try and prove myself. And, finally, people noticed.
“When I got my promotion, I was working my backside off, and that was a turning point for me.
“I told myself ‘I’m going to reclaim and stand up for something I really believe in and become a champion for the LGBT network.
“It was a platform for me to say: ‘this is me’.”
Take the matter in your own hands
Then, a year and a half ago, the Stonewall survey came up.
Stonewall is one of the UK’s leading LGBT+ charities and every year it publishes a list of the top 100 most inclusive employers in the country. In 2019, only four financial services firms made it onto the list.
When he approached a senior manager about it, he was told that LGBT discrimination didn’t really happen there.
But it wasn’t until Deon shared his experience with him that he realised it actually did happen.
His response, however, left Deon gobsmacked.
He told him: “So, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to change?”
It takes one
“I used my platform and I used my story to raise awareness in the business and I took over as chair for the LGBT network.”
It didn’t take long before Deon started seeing an avalanche of support, not just for him, but for the cause he was so wholeheartedly advocating.
“We’ve changed all of our policies this year, because our executive sponsor is so passionate about LGBT inclusion.”
Waking up to change
But this is not only a single-company occurrence, in fact, Deon told IA: “The industry is starting to wake up and realise that it needs to change.
“They can’t be the old traditional institutions [that they used to be]. The demographics are changing, the client base is changing, the people they are hiring are changing.
“And we know that a lot of [people from the younger generations] are very fluid and don’t want to be labelled into boxes, and they are more accepting.”
Deon said that this year alone, there have been five hires that came out at work and joined the LGBT network.
Change comes from the top
“Now I’m proudly out at work and I walk around with pride and my [rainbow] lanyard,” he said clenching the multi-coloured cord with a wide smile on his face.
“And having the support of senior management, and people like Michael Marks [the chief operating officer at Legal & General Investment Management] is fantastic.
“He was in the top 10 visual LGBT+ allies, and he approached this with a passion for people.
“He says: ‘Forget about the Stonewall index, it’s not about the survey, it’s about the staff, how can we make a difference for the people working with us and for us?’,” Deon said.
A commitment for the future
“I think when people get to see the real you, the more they are drawn to you.
“And you’re not living this lie. I’m free, free from that sense of fear.
“I can just be myself.”
At the same time, Deon told IA, that his commitment does not stop with him or his LGBT+ colleagues: “We have a responsibility to make things better for the next generation.”
Deon has not just been recognised for his LGBT+ advocacy, but also as a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (Bame) professional.
On 6 June, he was named on the 50 Ethnic Minority Future Leaders 2019 list – placing third. He came up with and championed the Follow the Money initiative which reached out to ethnic minority individuals from London’s most deprived areas.
To celebrate Pride month, and to mark 50 years since the Stonewall movement begun in 1969, International Adviser is publishing a series of profiles of LGBT+ professionals to understand their working and personal experiences in navigating the sector.
Last Word has partnered with LGBT Great, a financial services representative organisation focusing on diversity and inclusion. Deon is one of its role models.