TJ Richards, Outreach and Engagement Manager at Santander, speaks to myGwork about the varying standards of treatment towards LGBTQ+ people in the workplace, the changes that have taken place, and the progress that still needs to be made

Growing up in the Deep South of the United States and joining the military at a young age, TJ  Richards is no stranger to the repressive struggle many LGBTQ+ people know all too well – feeling out of place. Knowing what it’s like to be silenced, to feel like there’s no one to talk to and no one to help you. It is through this experience that she now dedicates much of her career to improving and enhancing workplace inclusivity, acknowledging the steady advancements made but always striving for more. 

Coming out is a difficult chapter of life for many people, but it’s especially daunting when your career and livelihood depend on staying closeted. In 2005, while in her position in the US military, TJ was outed, threatened with imprisonment and eventually kicked out due to her sexuality. She was diagnosed with CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) following her deployments, a condition triggered as a result of prolonged adrenaline and stress hormones in the brain, that resulted in anxiety and panic attacks This quickly became a constant presence in her life affecting things from grocery shopping to navigating public transport

Leaving the military, TJ went from an environment where her life was in danger at any moment to suddenly having to acclimatise to everyday living, with no professional help or assistance. This had an incredibly detrimental effect on her mental well-being and how she was able to navigate life. The impact of her Chronic Migraine Disorder is exceedingly harmful too, causing TJ often debilitating headaches for over twenty days a month, and making simple actions such as sitting up or opening her eyes incredibly difficult.

Naturally, these conditions provided complications that could have been life-altering in terms of work life. Many organisations simply do not provide the support required for TJ to work safely and comfortably. However, Santander immediately stepped up and supported her through the difficulties that come with her CPTSD and Chronic Migraine Disorder. With an instantly supportive and understanding team behind her, a difficult journey has been made just that little bit easier. Simple measures, such as the option to take less crowded transport when travel is needed, and access to private health insurance have been invaluable. TJ was even moved to tears after her first appointment with a specialist she could access through Santander’s insurance, because it was the first time a real solution was offered for her Chronic Migraine Disorder, starting on highly specialised medication that has vastly improved her life. With the help of Santander, she has been able to reflect upon the trauma of her past and make a promise to herself that she will not let it impact her confidence.

“The mental health crisis within the military population is very real.  Coming into the civilian world and having to adapt to joining Santander – I made a vow to myself that I would never, ever again, hold myself back. Whether that’s putting myself in the closet or not speaking up for myself. And actually, this has become a huge benefit to my career.”

It is a further testament to TJ’s resilience that in spite of the injustice she faced in the military, and with her CPTSD and Chronic Migraine Disorder, she is now the co-chair of Santander’s award winning LGBTQ+ network, Embrace. This network aims to increase visibility and promote inclusion within Santander and has been co-led by TJ for five years. Santander was the first company TJ worked for with an LGBTQ+ network and being able to march with them at Pride was incredibly symbolic.

“The Embrace network was marching in London pride 2017 and as the co-chair, I felt like I needed to be there – even though I’d never attended a Pride event before.” says TJ. “There was a moment where we were marching through Trafalgar Square and all those touristy bits that you see on postcards. And at the same time, I was holding my wife’s hand, being cheered on by what felt like millions of people. It was very emotional to consider how far I’d come from hiding in a closet.”

Marching at Pride was only the first step in TJ’s journey with the LGBTQ+ network. Founded in 2014, the Embrace network was originally very London centric. With TJ’s involvement, Santander extended the network to other locations around the UK including Milton Keynes, where she became the local representative for the network, before moving on to become co-chair. The network has now reached international recognition, with its blueprint used to create and grow Embrace networks across the Santander global footprint. 

Through the network, TJ has also helped introduce inclusive changes to the system, organising LGBTQ+ social events and pushing for pronouns on name badges. This was particularly important to her as she wants to ensure that every customer feels at ease and knows they are in a safe, welcoming environment, where any LGBTQ+-related banking matter (e.g., changing your gender marker; updating a deed poll name), is handled with discretion and consideration. 

There is a certain excitement TJ gets from making a positive impact and improving conditions for the community, being able to witness the effect of these slight changes from a wider perspective.

“Santander is really positive in terms of how we work across all strands of diversity because we do grasp and appreciate that people are intersectional. It’s been really refreshing, that openness to saying we could do better, and everybody saying ‘I agree, let’s work on it’.”

Though TJ admits that the banking industry can often be regarded as behind the times, she has seen first-hand the steps that Santander has taken towards achieving workplace diversity and inclusivity, and the priorities of the bank in a modern society. “The banks are serving the population of Britain, so we have a very diverse customer base. And we draw all of our employees from the population of Britain, so we actually have a really diverse colleague base as well.”

TJ recognises that the support Santander offered her, as well as the inclusive nature of the company, is not always the typical level of help provided in many workplaces and hopes that this will change, and more businesses will provide similar assistance for their staff. LGBTQ+ equality needs to be ingrained into an organisation’s business model, to support both employees and customers, and TJ wants this to start with an openness and ensuring that disability and mental health awareness are included in these conversations. That people are taken for what they are – whole people, and not just “one thing”.

“It’s about not assuming anything about anyone and having open conversations with people, with genuine interest. It’s about asking ‘How are you? How can I make things easier for you? Are you struggling with this? Is there something I can do to help?’ A little bit of empathy goes a long way.”

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