Top PwC executive praises response of colleagues as he comes out

21 August 2018 Authored by Consultancy.uk

A top executive of PwC has said that he was positively surprised by the reaction to his coming out. Michael de Ridder, who praised the warm responses of his colleagues, is due to commence an international position with the Big Four office following a sabbatical period.

Coming out of the closet is often cited by the LGBT community as one of life’s most terrifying moments. Even after decades of progress from less tolerant times, many still have no way of knowing how those around them may react, who may have been harbouring unspoken prejudices, or even who may break off contact with them or become abusive in the aftermath. As a result, it is a sad fact that in the world of modern business, some 20% of young professionals in the UK alone choose not to come out, while a third of them will avoid mentioning the gender of their partner when making small-talk.

Because of this remaining atmosphere of uncertainty and potential hostility, it came as a massive relief to Michael de Ridder, the former CFO and COO of PwC Netherlands, that his colleagues were entirely supportive of his recent coming out. Contrary to the frosty reception he might have worried about, De Ridder said, "It has washed over me like a warm bath, especially within PwC."

The atmosphere he has experienced in his professional environment is in line with the history of PwC, however. The company considers diversity to be of paramount importance – and the firm has made the pursuit of a balanced employee relationship between along the lines of gender, culture, ethnicity and sexuality a priority going forward. For years the consultancy has subsequently been working to reduce inequality on the shop floor, according to De Ridder. Recently this saw the firm join seven other consultancies as part of the Open For Business LGBT coalition.

He added, "That is deep in the genes of this club. I have regularly spoken at our diversity meetings and will continue to do so. I have always said: approach me if you need me. I always tell you very openly about what I am experiencing now."

In 1986 - after obtaining his doctorate title in Economics, De Ridder headed straight to the Big Four accounting and advisory firm. In his first ten years he climbed to the rank of Partner within the insurance branch of the group, and another twelve years later – in 2008 – he became a member of the Board of Directors of the audit department of PwC, where he was responsible for, among other things, quality and risk management. In 2013 he became Chairman of the Executive Board in the Netherlands, and from October 2016 until 2018, he was a tight two-year CFO and COO of PwC Netherlands. Now, the PwC veteran will complete a sabbatical, before taking up an international leadership role with the global firm. In that capacity, he will visit all 158 countries where PwC is active, controlling the quality and management systems of the audit firms.

55 year-old De Ridder realises that he is lucky that he has left the closet under his certain circumstances, as in a country less liberal than the Netherlands, or a workplace less educated than PwC, it might have been an issue. He elaborated, "We can of course be pleased that we live in the Netherlands and I also know that at PwC most of them are higher educated. There is an open culture here where 'being gay' is not an issue. But I also realise that if I had worked elsewhere, this might have been an issue. Then perhaps I would have felt worried or unhappy. Or maybe I'd become rebellious."

Awareness

Before De Ridder became aware of his homosexuality, he had been married to his wife for a number of years, and had children. When he noticed that he started to feel different a few years ago, De Ridder made the difficult decision to explore his emotions. He explained, "Within a marriage it is not nice to do things that you actually can not find. But I wanted to investigate whether it was what I felt. And so I found out that I am something else. In December 2016 I met my friend Tobias.”

According to De Ridder, his friend was very happy with him, but at the time he was uncomfortable with the arrangement between the pair, as De Ridder was still married. "He said after a few months: 'This is great, I am in love, but you are married and have children. You are high in the corporate tree and will never come out of the closet. I have to stop this."

"My coming out has washed over me like a warm bath, especially within PwC. Diversity and inclusiveness is considered important."

While the relationship looked set to end, the conclusion of that conversation did not sit well with De Ridder, however. He said he felt a sickness in my stomach, and following dinner with his best friend and a few bottles of wine, he had the courage to tell him what was wrong. Following that conversation, he decided to pluck up the courage to inform his family as well.

He said, "Of course you do not know how such a thing is received. We have been married for almost twenty years and no one had any suspicions. My wife was in shock, but very understanding. She felt that something was not right, but she had never thought of it."

The future

While his wife and De Ridder have since decided to separate, the contact between them remains, and he is still part of the family. According to De Ridder, his children have taken longer to adapt to the new arrangement, but they are getting used to it gradually. “My children process it in their own way, they need more time… For them, the feeling that Dad has left the family, but also that Dad is now looking for new relationships with men, and sometimes they are not really interested in new relationships of Daddy or Mommy."

As he prepares for his new role with PwC, De Ridder expects that he will be on the move for one and a half to two weeks per month, a burden which is common in the consulting industry. While it was expected in his line of work, De Ridder noted that it can be tricky to juggle with building a new relationship with his boyfriend. "That would have been different in a longer relationship. My friend realises that it is a beautiful, honourable job that is good for my self-development. He will travel occasionally, but of course I am often not there. But we are used to having to coordinate our lives."

Meanwhile, PwC recently completed a voyage in De Ridder’s native Netherlands, sailing through the streets of Amsterdam as part of the city’s annual Pride Canal Parade. The trip was PwC’s third year in a row with its own boat on the famous waterways of the Dutch capital. Since 2016, PwC has also been a sponsor of Pride Amsterdam, while the theme of Pride this year was Heroes.

Marc Borggreven, Board Member of PwC and responsible for Human Capital within the organisation, said, "PwC considers diversity and inclusiveness important. We believe it is important for LGBT people to feel free and safe with us. By sponsoring Pride Amsterdam and sailing along the Canal Parade, we express this.”

Related: 15 consulting industry figures amongst those named LGBT+ role models.

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