WTW’s Suzanne McAndrew talks to myGwork’s Pepi Sappal about her passion for improving the employee experience for all and encouraging colleagues to be their authentic selves at work
BY MYGWORK, IMAGES BY SUZANNE MCANDREW
As WTW’s Global Employee Experience Business Leader and LGBT+ Inclusion Network sponsor, Suzanne McAndrew is able to combine her two big passions –improving the employee experience alongside helping colleagues to be their authentic selves at work, especially senior leaders who may not be out yet.
“My mission at WTW is to make a difference. If I can make a difference to your day, whether you’re sitting in Riyadh, Tokyo, Shanghai, San Francisco or London, then I want to do that. There are millions of workers out there showing up for work and not having the best employee experience. They might be worried about a loved one, dealing with financial insecurity, stress, managing childcare, having difficult conversations with a leader, or just unhappy with what they are doing.”
Her role at WTW helps organisations take the pulse of their workers views and feelings: “The insights we collate through feedback surveys allow us to share pain points and offer suggestions to improve their employee experience.”
Suzanne said she’s finally doing her passion work, but admits she was a late bloomer in terms of figuring out what she wanted from her career. To pursue her love of writing, she majored in Journalism at the University of Maryland in the US although she decided not to take the easy route, turning down the opportunity to continue working with the PR company she was interning at for a more exciting HR role.
Having started out as a salesperson at Bloomingdale’s in her teens, she went on to work in bigger roles with some of the country’s top retail giants. After graduating, she took on a role to help open a new store by hiring and training all the staff for Saks Fifth Avenue. “I started my HR career right out of college in the DC Maryland area. Then, shortly after in 1993, a very good friend, Kyle, offered me a corporate communications role at Saks in NY.”
She jumped at the chance because it blended her journalism and PR capabilities with her HR experience. But she returned to an HR generalist role to open stores around the US, which “although was fun, I missed the content side”.
So, when her friend Kyle knocked on her door with the opportunity to be head of corporate communications at Macy’s, she took it. “It was there that I found out there was a commercial side to human resources and corporate communications, which ultimately led me to the professional services role at Towers Perrin (now part of WTW) as a communications and change consultant, where I work today, helping to improve the employee experience.”
She is also passionate about helping staff to be their authentic selves at work. It was a discriminatory incident shortly after coming out at work that propelled Suzanne to be her authentic self and share her coming out story to encourage others to do the same.During the early part of her HR career back in the nineties, she was worried about coming out at work because most industries were quite conservative: “So I was in the closet for the first year and a half, which was really hard. I often spoke about Christine, my partner, in the third person and avoided being invited to after-hours events.”
However, she did keep a picture of Christine on her desk in the hope that someone would ask about her, but they didn’t. “Then, when we were engaged to be married, I was grateful for that one person who did ask about the ring they had noticed on my finger,” recalled Suzanne. “That incident allowed me to open up at work, which was both empowering and beautiful. Most of my colleagues were happy for us. They even threw us a baby shower when our son was born.”
Things were going well until, one day, when the team were celebrating winning a piece of new business, the client manager pulled her into a room and advised her to not share her “lifestyle” with the new client. “I had an emotional reaction to her not wanting me to be out with this client. So I pushed back with, ‘What do you mean by my lifestyle?’ I felt that my whole world was just ripped from under my feet because I just didn’t expect this kind of discrimination and I didn’t know how to handle it. I was very angry about it, so I escalated it,” recalled Suzanne.
However, the leaders she had escalated the matter to did not know how to respond. “That’s because back then there weren’t policies like there are now,” shared Suzanne. “But they listened and eventually they did intervene. From that moment I decided to be my authentic self, regardless of what others thought about me or my ‘lifestyle’.”
Although Suzanne had to work with the same client manager, she ended up forging a really good working relationship with her. “In fact, at her retirement party, she thanked me for educating her and changing her views on the matter,” Suzanne revealed.
Coming out to her family had its own set of challenges: “Both mine and Christine’s families are Catholic, so coming out to our families was not easy either. But being part of a close-knit family, coming out to my parents was important.”
When Suzanne first met Christine, they were both dating male partners. “She was my first lesbian relationship,” shared Suzanne. “But not telling the full truth to my family about my relationship with Christine was weighing on me and actually making me ill.”
So after about a year of dating Christine, she came out to her parents during the Christmas break. “We were sat around the table talking about their friend, who is gay. So I said, ‘Well, I am too. I’m in love with Christine’. And despite being a bit stunned they responded with ‘Well, is she in love with you?’ Then my mum said, ‘we just love you and want you to do the right thing. We want you to do what makes you happy, we’re here to support you’.”
However, Suzanne also felt like a wall went up between her and her mum that day. She attributes the rift partly to not sharing what was going on in her life when she met Christine. “It probably felt like I lied and that I had hidden things from her. So, it took some time for us to mend,” shared Suzanne. “I later realised that after I came out to my parents, they then had to come out to everybody too. So although it was an emotional release for me that pressure just transferred over to them, which undoubtedly had some follow up challenges.”
Despite the challenges, Suzanne and Christine got married in 2000 with both their parents’ blessing, even though same-sex marriages weren’t legally recognised then. “We had a commitment ceremony in Central Park followed by a big, beautiful party with family and friends,” she recalled.
This year, Suzanne and her wife celebrate 22 years together, and their son is now 19 years old. Suzanne has shared both her workplace and family coming out stories through the WTW’s LGBT+ Inclusion Network. Through the Inclusion Network, she launched an initiative to share rainbow family stories virtually, be it an employee’s or family member’s coming out experience and any accompanying challenges.
Suzanne’s role as the company’s LGBTQ+ network sponsor, which she has been doing for the past three years, has been a growth opportunity to learn more about the global LGBTQ+ challenges in the workplace: “During Pride last year, we brought LGBTQ+ visibility to the global stage by launching Passport to Pride. These global webinars shed light on specific challenges faced by our LGBT+ colleagues from all around the world, and enabled allies to be more active in helping colleagues bring their whole selves to work.” And this year, WTW hosted a global Pride event for colleagues to drive awareness around LGBTQ+ parenting. WTW CEO, Carl Hess, joined the panel to also share his daughter’s journey and his parenting lessons learned.”
She believes that more employees want to learn about inclusion and be better LGBTQ+ allies. “So organisations really need to dial into this and open up channels for listening,” stressed Suzanne. “We encourage sharing stories at WTW to ensure the safety and inclusion of all our staff. Some workers have come out on our regular calls; one shared they are transitioning and needed some guidance and we put her in touch with someone right away to help on the transitioning benefits. We even had one quite religious parent in Texas, who shared how he is struggling to support his non-binary child, and subsequently found support through another colleague in a similar situation. These calls are particularly popular worldwide, especially in the US, with one call attracting over 1,000 participants.”
Another priority for Suzanne this year is building a leadership pipeline of LGBTQ+ leaders: “To get the visibility for LGBTQ+ employees, we need leadership at the top to feel comfortable enough to be out too. That means ensuring staff feel safe enough to self-ID and have systems in place to support that.”
To be able to grow a pipeline of LGBTQ+ leaders, “we need to know who those leaders are,” shared Suzanne. “We know there are people in our organisation at the very top who identify as LGBTQ+, but perhaps not as out as they should be.” Suzanne looks forward to going even further as the takes on an expanded role as Chair of the WTW Inclusion & Diversity Council. Her focus for this year is to help create an inclusive culture that will help leaders feel safe enough to come out without the fear of discrimination that she faced early on in her career.
Suzanne admits that coming out probably did hold her back from getting other promotions and opportunities, especially in the early part of her career. But not anymore. “That’s down to owning my story, sharing it and empowering others to do the same. There’s power in being you,” concluded Suzanne. As an out senior leader and role model, she’s encouraging other leaders to do the same and reap the benefits of living a more authentic life, both at work and home.
DIVA magazine celebrates 28 years in print in 2022. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQI media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable.