The annual list published on 20 October, compiled by the networking group OUTstanding and the Financial Times, lists the world’s top 100 leading LGBT executives, along with the top 30 allies and future leaders. Aritha has been featured globally alongside Inga Beale, CEO of Lloyds, who topped the Top 100 and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook who lead the list of top 30 allies.The list highlights lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender role models and their allies in business to encourage more people to be open in the workplace.
Aritha has been described in the list as an enormously successful campaigner for diversity and inclusion in his career. Formerly a lawyer at prestigious magic circle law firm Clifford Chance, he has been credited for the expansion of the firm’s LGBT and diversity initiatives globally during his period as head of its LGBT and diversity network. The international finance lawyer is now at prestigious law firm K&L Gates, one of the world’s largest law firms with 47 offices worldwide. Aritha leads a number of diversity and inclusion initiatives both at the firm and outside it and has been instrumental in a number of pro bono matters focused on human rights, especially LGBT issues, both at K&L Gates and Clifford Chance.
Recently he has been coordinating a panel with representatives from the UN, World Bank and other institutions, to advise on creating a global, mandatory curriculum to teach equality, human rights and citizenship to children in schools. Aritha is a founder member of the Equality Studies Global Initiative together with LesleeUdwin, director and producer of controversial documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ and a strong campaigner for women’s rights and gender equality. He is also the Sri Lanka representative for iProbono, an award-winning organisation with 60,000 lawyers worldwide that links people who need legal help with lawyers who offer advice on a pro bono basis.
The Top 100 Business Leaders list was topped by Inga Beale, the Lloyd’s of London boss. It is the first time a woman is at the top of the annual list. Beale, an industry veteran, became chief executive in 2014 – the first female CEO in its 327-year history. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who topped the top 30 Ally Executives list was recognised for his work championing LGBT diversity at Facebook and globally.
In an exclusive interview, we asked Aritha about his story and how the impact of being an out LGBT person has been to his career. Following are excerpts:
Q: In what way has being an LGBT-identifying executive impacted your career?
A: I would say quite positively. The industry has changed tremendously over the last decade. There is increasing acceptance that an open and more inclusive work environment is a happier place to work and, I know it may sound cliché, but happy employees are always more productive. Being out has meant that I can focus my energies on my career and contributing to the work place rather than hiding. People often underestimate the effort that’s required to live a lie.
Q: Have you been out since day one? If not, has coming out changed your working relationships?
A: Yes I have been out since day one. I first joined law as a trainee at Clifford Chance back in 2010. During my induction session I was informed about its LGBT network Arcus along with an email address of a partner at the firm whom I could contact should I want to join. I have been out about my sexuality since I was 15 while schooling in Sri Lanka. Nothing was going to make me go back into the closet that I had long left. I contacted the partner and was immediately welcomed and encouraged to contribute towards greater diversity and inclusivity at the firm. Two years down the line I was elected as Arcus’ chair and the last three and half years, including my recent joining of K&L Gates, has been nothing but incredible.
Some people say that I am lucky to have been so well received as an out junior finance lawyer. But I don’t think this is about luck. Businesses have an obligation by law and by duty to not discriminate and create the most inclusive environment for all their employees. Whether it is because of their sexuality, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability or any other difference – no one should be made to feel or treated differently because of what they are. There should be nothing lucky about being ourselves. We are who we are. Businesses need to and many have recognised that if you want to be the best, you can only do that by harnessing the best in all your staff – and that is through inclusivity not prejudice.
Q: Do you believe LGBT leaders have an obligation to be open about their sexuality in the workforce?
A: Yes I do. Like any minority, it is important that there are adequate, visible role models for LGBT youth to inspire towards. By being visible, LGBT leaders send the message to LGBT youth that being themselves is not a detriment to their careers. It creates one less fear and one less doubt in our minds and that means we can put in more effort and time in helping grow the business rather than hiding from senior management. From my personal experience, K&L Gates has a number of visible LGBT leaders which for me was inspiring.
Q: What future steps do you believe companies should take to facilitate greater LGBT diversity in the workplace?
A: There is a lot of work being done by businesses in this field, but it is still heavily restricted to the larger institutions. Most large institutions have set up internal networks between LGBT staff and there are a number of industry wide initiatives – helping provide support and role models to LGBT youth especially. But networks and diversity events are not enough. There needs to be greater buy in from senior and middle management on the importance of diversity.
Often you find the case that where top level management are supportive of such initiatives, middle management (which junior executives report to) couldn’t care less. This sends out the wrong message to junior executives. The impression of lack of support is the same as not being supportive at all. Many organisations are also starting Allies programmes – which I fully support. It is important for all colleagues to show that we are in this journey of inclusivity and equality together. The question of LGBT diversity in the workplace is not restricted to those who are LGBT only. An inclusive environment is a better environment for everyone.
Q: Did you have any role models in the workplace?
A: I am the sort of person who finds inspiration in many people. I believe that we all have something to share and we must all learn from each other’s stories. At Clifford Chance I would say I was most inspired by Richard Coleman – he’s been at the firm for over half a century and is the repository of all legal knowledge. Richard taught me the importance of perseverance and to follow my passions. For that I will eternally be grateful. At K&L Gates, which I recently joined, I have been inspired by Jonathan Lawrence – who is also a Top 100 OutStanding Leader. Jonathan is also my mentor at the firm and to share this honour with him is a great privilege.
But I would say that my most important role models and figures of inspiration have been my parents. I grew up during civil war in Sri Lanka. Every day, through the bombings and stories of the dead, I lived through the consequences of inequality and prejudice. My father and mother were very keen to teach us the importance of equality and non-discrimination – in the hope that our generation would be different to theirs. They taught us that people must be respected for who they are and that irrespective of ones gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, we must learn to value one another as people. I have always taken those lessons to heart and I proudly carry them with me through my career.
This interview was originally published in the DailyFT