Boehringer Ingelheim Regenbogen Netzwerk
06 June 2017

“If we don’t act, then nothing is going to change”

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity – what does this have to do with the workplace? In this day and age, we believe a lot. Since only in 1990, the World Health Organisation (WHO) removed homosexuality from its list of diseases. Much has changed for the better in the almost three decades since then – but equal opportunities for lesbians, gays and transgender people is still a work in progress.


Boehringer Ingelheim is making its own commitment to establishing a culture where diversity is valued, be it gender, cultural background, age, physical characteristics, or sexual orientation and gender identity. The German Rainbow Network is supporting this by increasing the visibility of the “brightly coloured” side of life in our company and giving LGBTIQ colleagues a safe space for exchanging experiences and ideas.


In our series of LGBTIQ interviews, colleagues from the Boehringer Ingelheim Rainbow Networks in Ingelheim and Biberach tell us about their experiences. Meet Dr Christian Seifert, Head of Statistics in the BioPharma unit at Biberach and member of the Rainbow Network.

Dr. Seifert, what is your current role at Boehringer Ingelheim?


I am Head of Statistics in the BioPharma unit, and I am based at the Biberach plant. I currently lead two teams, mainly working with data and statistics. I have been with the company for four years, and this is the third position that I have held in the organisation.


What has been your experience of being open about your homosexuality?


I am originally from the Ruhr district, where this is generally an openly and widely discussed issue. When someone comes out, people mostly know how to respond appropriately. But in Biberach, I have the impression that, generally speaking, fewer people have openly gay friends and acquaintances in their social circle. In many cases, my coming out was their first such experience. Also, I’m probably particularly sensitive to people’s external reactions. As an adolescent, I suffered physical abuse over my homosexuality, and I still watch very carefully to see how the other person reacts whenever I have to “out” myself.


What reactions have you experienced in the workplace on coming out?


Generally, I would say that my experiences have been mixed. My superiors thanked me for having the trust to take this step, and some of them showed personal interest and asked me some questions about the situation. I came out to my colleagues only after I had passed the end date of my fixed-term employment contract, i.e. after I had been with the company for two years. I felt I needed a more secure situation before taking this step. I had just had an internal transfer, and in a “getting to know you” workshop with my new team, when I was asked about my girlfriend, I just said that actually I had a male partner. The reactions were mainly open and accepting, and most of them did their best to treat this as quite normal. In general, I have the impression that the more I can be matter-of-fact about the situation, the more the person I am talking to is likely to react matter-of-factly as well. But unfortunately, it’s still not easy to be open about one’s homosexuality in all situations. That’s why we need initiatives like the Rainbow Network.


How did you find out about the Rainbow Network at Boehringer Ingelheim? What form does your involvement take?


Last year, I saw the invitation to attend the network’s founding meeting posted on the Intranet. My initial reaction was that this would be an enjoyable, relaxed social gathering, and I didn’t really expect that any real work would be involved – with a meeting structure, charter and tasks to assign (laughs). I soon realised just how wrong I was, and I have been involved in the organising team ever since. We meet at least once a month for a network meeting of about three hours, as well as organising other campaigns and events, such as the Diversity Day, for example. Between us, we put quite a few hours of our free time into the network.


What kind of contribution do you think the Rainbow Network can make? Why would you encourage a gay colleague, for example, to get involved?


I think our network has the ability to change the workplace climate at Boehringer Ingelheim and make it a positive space for LGBTIQ people. Clearly, that initially requires effort and commitment from those of us who are involved in making this happen, but we also benefit from the result. Ultimately, all employees benefit from a positive workplace atmosphere. In specific terms, the Rainbow Network offers all kinds of advisory and assistance services, and in particular we also have close links with the works council. And we are always happy to answer any questions that people may have – not just those involved in the network, but right through the company.


What benefits do employees participating in the Rainbow Network bring for the company?


LGBTIQ employees who can be open about who they are at the workplace are much better able to concentrate on their work and to put their skills and abilities to the service of the company – quite simply, they are able to work more effectively. The relief of no longer having to conceal the fact of having a same-sex partner is an incredibly energising experience, which translates into major benefits for Boehringer. Our network can make a major contribution towards creating this culture of openness. And there is another important aspect as well: in many countries, homosexual and trans individuals are subject to severe penalties, and cannot be anywhere near as open as is often possible in the West. The diversity within our company and the high visibility of the Rainbow Network will provide an incentive for talented people from those countries to come and work for us. Diversity makes us a more attractive employer.


What role do you see the network playing in terms of senior management and career development?


Coming out today can still have a negative impact on an individual’s career development. For example, male homosexuality is associated with the attribute of weakness in many people’s minds, whereas those in middle and top management roles are supposed to be “strong”. This kind of prejudice can all too easily play a part in career planning decisions. This is where we – as the Rainbow Network – can make a real difference, through education, and by providing positive examples to eliminate these mistaken ideas. This takes a lot of effort, particularly at the start of the process, but if we don’t act, then nothing is going to change. In my own role as a manager, I want to show people that I can make the decision to come out and stand by that decision, and demonstrate that there is little or indeed no substance to these widespread prejudices. 


To what extent do you believe management can act as role models?


In my own case, I believe that, in my role as a manager, being open about my sexual orientation enables me to be more approachable and accessible for my staff, and not just “the boss”. I realise that many people have stereotypes about gays, so naturally there is a danger that I will simply be transferred from the “manager” box into the “homosexual” box in people’s minds. Here, it’s a matter of finding an adequate balance between getting close to your staff while maintaining appropriate boundaries. But a certain degree of openness is an important part of my own leadership style, because I try to communicate my energy and enthusiasm to my staff, and work together with them to reach ambitious and visionary goals.


What do you see as the next steps for the work of the network and LGBTIQ visibility in the company?


First of all, my hope is that the Rainbow Network will continue to thrive, and attract even more members and supporters. The organisation can accommodate involvement on many different levels, including those who do not want to be in the front line, and would prefer to participate in some other way. It would be great if, in future, the LGBTIQ issue could lose its taboo status altogether, and if all our employees could be liberated from their fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. I would also like to see many “straight allies”, i.e. non-LGBTIQ colleagues, supporting the network. They do not suffer discrimination at first hand, so their involvement is clearly based on their conviction of what is right. This is extremely positive, because we simply have to do something to counter the right-wing currents of opinion currently in the air, in this country and internationally, and to show that our company stands for diversity and open-mindedness. I hope that management will continue to support us, even if the political climate becomes a little more turbulent.


What advice do you have for new LGBTIQ employees at Boehringer Ingelheim who have not yet come out at the workplace?


For most of those who opt not to come out at work, this is because they fear being discriminated against as a result. But unless we come out, that situation is not going to change. The more we come out, the more progress we will make towards eliminating such discrimination. Endorsement of our network on the part of company management testifies to Boehringer Ingelheim’s strong commitment to the welfare and safety of its LGBTIQ employees. Now it’s up to us to make that commitment a reality. So it’s time for you all to come out! (laughs)


We have just had a long weekend with less than perfect weather – what did you spend your holiday doing?


I was at home with my partner in our little town house in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, enjoying a barbecue with some friends. People often ask why I choose to live in Ludwigshafen rather than Biberach, where I work. Unfortunately, the atmosphere for gays in Biberach is not as open and accepting as I would like, so we have opted to live in a bigger city. But we at Boehringer can help to tackle the challenge of increasing the acceptance of people of any sexual orientation right here and now, within company locations and out into wider society.

"If we don’t act, then nothing is going to change, says Dr. Christian Seifert. "
Denise Hottmann
Dr. Christian Seifert

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