As Global Communications + Culture Director, Melissa Quackenbush’s responsibilities encompass leading H+K’s global diversity program and managing the company’s employer brand across platforms such as its Careers site, LinkedIn and Glassdoor. She also supports global employee experience initiatives from a strategic planning and communications perspective. Since she joined H+K in 2007, she has worked in the company’s New York, Austin, Istanbul and Dubai offices in client-facing roles, most recently serving as Regional Director of Health + Wellness for the MENA region before assuming her current role.
Meredith Andrew, a Fellow in H+K’s Austin office, sat down with her to find out what it’s like leading a global diversity program during World Pride Month for a company with offices in 40+ countries.
Meredith Andrew: I wanted to discuss your experiences with LGBTQ+ Pride in the workplace and how it comes to life this time of year. I would love to know what you’ve learned from being in your current role working with the LGBTQ+ community, what the challenges are, what advice you have and some stories about your experience.
Melissa Quackenbush: This is my first experience with World Pride Month in my new role, so there have been a lot of learnings already. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is working within the vastly different LGBTQ+ landscapes across the 40+ countries where we have offices. It’s a delicate balance of wanting to be sensitive to differences, but also wanting to push the envelope and give a voice to people who might not be able to speak for themselves. And, at the same time it’s a challenge, it’s exciting.
The feedback I’ve received on World Pride Month so far has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from members of H+K’s LGBTQ+ community. I’ve even had people in our more conservative markets reach out and say, “Hey, I am so, so happy H+K is doing this!”
MA: This makes me really happy!
MQ: Well, it makes me really happy, too! This is why we’re doing this!
MA: That brings me to my next question. How do LGBTQ+ challenges differ from gender challenges, for example?
MQ: That’s a really good question. In March we did the International Women’s Day activation. With the #MeToo movement creating a ripple effect around the world, it’s now accepted that this is something we talk about, and this is something we’re all working on. And where most markets are comfortable talking about women’s issues, many are not as far along for LGBTQ+ issues, so, on a global scale, it’s harder for people to talk about openly.
As communicators, we know how important it is to be able talk about these things. Culture is defined by language, and, without having a common language to support dialogue about any issue – be it LGBTQ+ or something else – change is impossible.
And, even within the LGBTQ+ community, there are still differences around the agreed acronym – is it LGBTQ? LGBTQ+? LGBTQIA?
MA: It’s interesting you say that because I feel like it is something that’s constantly changing. When I was researching the LGBTQ+ community for this interview I realized that the term for the community has changed and Gen-Zers added an IA to the end. I consider myself an Ally, and, yet, I hadn’t realized that I needed to update the term I use when referring to the community. It’s important we use the right language and made me wonder if there is a platform or website I could access to stay updated.
MQ: So, GLAAD puts out a media guide. It hasn’t been updated for a few years, but it’s considered the gold standard – particularly in the U.S. and a few Latin American countries and China – for how to refer to members of the community. They use LGBTQ. I like adding the “+” to make it more inclusive. I’m learning a lot as well, and I, too, have long considered myself an Ally. I have a sister who is part of the LGBTQ+ community, so it’s personal for me. But, I still need to constantly update my knowledge on how to be the best Ally.
MA: Then, in your experience being in the U.S. and elsewhere, how does the LGBTQ+ community in the American workplace differ from that in other countries?
MQ: In Turkey, Istanbul is generally more open than other parts of the country. Regardless, I’ve observed that even if there is tacit understanding that someone in the office is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and they are fully included within the office culture, that person may not be comfortable enough to be out.
MA: Because the culture there wasn’t as open about it, even though everyone may know that an individual identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community and has accepted and welcomed it, no one would speak about or acknowledge it out of respect for that person?
MQ: Yes. People respect that if someone has not come out to them, there is probably a good reason and they don’t push that person to come out.
To help put it into context, Istanbul Pride has not been supported by the government since 2016. And, in Dubai, and the UAE in general, engaging in sexual relations outside of a heterosexual marriage is a crime. These things have a profound impact on how people behave in those countries.
MA: I know lots of my LGBTQ+ friends in the U.S. put that they’re part of the community on their LinkedIn profiles and resumes, and I know some workplaces more than others look at that as a positive. How do you think that identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community affects your chances of being welcomed into a workplace?
MQ: I place huge respect and trust and hope in the younger generations. The Millennials and Gen-Zers have pushed workplaces to be more inclusive, so that now more than ever, in the U.S. particularly, it’s accepted and even seen as a bonus. It’s a way of bringing diversity in experience, background and mindset to our teams – which translates into more creativity in solving our own and our clients’ business challenges. There are still pockets in the U.S.—and I’m not just talking about PR—where the thinking is less inclusive. But, generally, in the PR industry and in the more creative industries, it’s considered an asset.
MA: I love that! From your experience as the Global Communications and Culture Director, is there anything you would recommend to other workplaces to make the environment safer and more comfortable? How would you suggest showing that you’re in support of the community?
MQ: Make an extra effort to talk to the people in your offices who come from diverse backgrounds, and make sure you are listening to them and acting on what they say. Find ways to involve them in all facets of the organization. It’s easy for me to make decisions, and say, “This is what we should be doing.” But I come from my unique perspective and I don’t have all the answers.
You will be bombarded with great ideas and won’t be able to act on everything in that moment, so it will be important to prioritize and also be transparent about the choices you’re making. If it were possible, I would say yes to everything, but now I have a great repository of ideas and already can’t wait for World Pride 2020!
But the bottom line is you have to start somewhere. Inaction isn’t an option.
MA: I think that’s excellent advice. Going back to your point on believing in younger generations, I think it’s so great that people are trying to make equality the standard and more present in the workplace.
MQ: Agreed, and something else that’s so exciting to me is that my background in social work ties in to all this work we’re doing at H+K. I’m so happy to be getting back to that and feel like I’ve come home in this new role.
MA: And it’s so positive to hear that our office, especially here in Austin, is so open and so accepting. You can really be who you are, whatever that may be, and everyone will take it and go with it.
MQ: I recently read that Google researched 180 of their own teams to isolate what creates the best-performing teams. They came up with five things. Four of them were what you would expect, such as purpose and clearly defined roles and expectations, but the fifth was a surprise. The fifth was psychological safety. And that really gets down to inclusion. If you are able to create that psychological safety in a team, it’s going to be a great performing team because everybody feels free to be who they are and free to share their ideas. There’s a healthy flow of ideas at that comfort level, and that’s when you can do your best work. We’re all going to say things that sound, well, not so smart, from time to time.
MA: Yes, of course. We’re all human!
MQ: But if we’re not as self-conscious, we’re going to say brilliant things a lot more!
MA: I grew up playing a lot of sports, and they say this quite a bit: “You miss every shot you don’t take.” And I think that ties into what you’re saying and what the article says about successful teams: If you have this freedom, if you’re psychologically more comfortable, then you’ll be willing to take more of those shots. You won’t worry as much about missing your shot and disappointing your team when they choose to pass the ball to you. Instead, when you know your team supports you, you can miss that shot and know you’ll still have another chance.
MQ: This reminds me of happiness research I’ve come across. The author, Eric Weiner, travelled the world consulting with happiness experts. At the time, Iceland was one of the happiest countries in the world, and the theory was because Iceland has a culture where failure is actually encouraged. Everyone feels free to explore their creative ideas without limitation, and with that sort of mentality, you get better and more creative ideas.
And that’s what we’re striving for. H+K wants to be a workplace where everyone belongs and is free and inspired to be creative and reach their full potential.