OUTstanding work: Tom Ketteley on diversity in the civil service and the importance of LGBT+ role models

Tom Ketteley is an assistant director at UK Visas and Immigration who was named in the OUTstanding top 100 LGBT+ future leaders for 2020. He tells CSW about mentoring, diversity in the civil service and why public role models are important
Tom Ketteley (right) at London Pride

The OUTstanding top 100 top LGBT+ future leaders list recognises business leaders who are breaking down barriers and creating more inclusive workplaces. After being included in the list for 2021, Tom Ketteley talks to CSW about his work as an LGBT+ role model and mentor in the Home Office, and how the civil service can be more inclusive.

Congratulations on being named in the top 100.

Thanks! It’s really very flattering, especially when you see everyone else on the list. I’m really pleased, I’ve certainly told the story in my area of the Home Office, but it’s really nice to get a bit more exposure – not really for me, but for why it’s important that we have things like this.

Why is public recognition like this for LGBT+ role models important?

For me, it is about creating – particularly in the civil service – an inclusive culture, where we know that no matter who you are, where you come from, what makes you special is what makes you different. I think there’s a perception that there are barriers and glass ceilings, and I’m sure there are – but hopefully these lists will help other people see what they can achieve. I’m a great believer in ‘you have to see it to be it’.

You do a lot of work mentoring other civil servants – how did you get involved in that?

I’m quite a chatty person, I like talking to people. And I’m really fortunate that a lot of my role is around developing and bringing people on. My day job is legal career pathways, as well as some operational work, which is really about investing in people and talent. So I’m very lucky to have space to be able to champion things. I get approached a lot of the time for chats and coffees or mentoring. I do a range of mentoring, some through our talent schemes in the Home Office, particularly our Access scheme which is for underrepresented groups. I don’t just mentor LGBT+ people, but I do tend to find that’s who I get matched up with most, particularly at the junior grades. Outside work I mentor for Queer Lawyers for Tomorrow, which is for law students. I’m very involved in making the legal profession more inclusive.

Is there a long way to go there?

Yes. My background is as a solicitor in private practice, and the law is just so stuffy and outdated, it’s quite incredible. I’m on the committee of the Law Society’s LGBT+ division, which we’ve only had since 2014, where every other protected characteristic has had one since the ‘70s or ‘80s. And still, it’s controversial, and people don’t really understand it. It’s similar in the Home Office, but at a different level – you see some of the comments on staff news articles, and you realise there’s a lot more that we need to do to create that inclusive environment.

Where in particular do you think progress still needs to be made in the civil service?

One area is visibility – I’ve always been out at work, but I know from speaking to law students that they often expect to go back into the closet when they start their career. And some of our graduates who come into the Home Office, I’m surprised how many people feel that they have to hide themselves and be something different when they’re at work.

So I think we’ve got to educate people, starting before they come anywhere near us that actually, you can be who you want to be in the civil service. Then following on from that once they arrive, we need to instil that we value that difference. Having different lived experiences can make our policy professions better because there’s more thought around the table.

How does that breadth of experience benefit the Home Office, where you work?

From an operational perspective, the more we reflect the communities that we serve, the less likely things like Windrush are to happen again. And it’s not just about LGBT+ perspectives; that’s where I add a lot of my time and effort, but not exclusively.

How else do you champion diversity and inclusivity?

I guess I annoy people a bit but I won’t sit on all-male interview panels. We can do better than that. I’ll tell people “I’ll find you someone to take my place or you need to find someone else to sit alongside me.”

But actually, everyone can do that. And I think once we’ve cracked things on the gender side, we can move onto other things – so I want to make sure that every panel I’m going to be on is not all white. I try and put my money where my mouth is, so on the selection programme I run we have diverse panels, we have blind selection, we aspire to be the gold standard, and to keep improving. It helps being LGBT and also having a disability so I tick those two boxes! But all of that, I think, is really important to making sure that we spot the right talent and we don’t always just recruit within our own image.

Whose responsibility do you think it is to drive change?

I think there’s a lot of individual responsibility. You also need to have the permissive environment where you can stand up and say “I’m not going to sit on that panel” and feel comfortable to champion that. I think the civil service gives me that safe space.

Sometimes in coaching conversations I get told ‘it’s easier for you because you’re more senior’. And I always say “well, I wasn’t always more senior!” You have to have a moral or ethical compass, and I think civil service values allow you to take those positions. But you need that enabling culture to do that – and to care about where you work.

Are you encouraged by civil service leadership saying they want to champion diversity – or does this feel like a conversation that’s been happening for a long time?

It has been going on for a long time, but I’m really pleased to see some of the practical changes that are taking place, like the introduction of independent panel members – not just because I enjoy sitting on interview panels and hearing the classic stories people tell you. The fact that more places are now using that best practice – I don’t know what the stats are, but I feel it must make a difference.

What’s important about having independent panel members?

The fact that there is someone who is different on the panel, I think, should help people feel more comfortable with these roles. And there’s a lot of benefit to being an independent panel member – because I’ve done it, I know far more about how the system works now, so my applications are significantly better than they would be otherwise. That experience can help more junior people really understand what people are looking for when they’re appointing a director general, what they need to do in their career if they want to aim for that and what their next steps should be. I’ve  benefitted a lot from those panels in terms of senior networking too.

What goals do you have for your own career?

My career anchor has always been immigration, I love to know why people move around the world. That was the case right from university, studying migration and refugees and doing volunteer work with the Red Cross refugee unit. I then worked in private practice on immigration, where I ended up specialising, particularly in LGBT+ family migration and human rights family work – that was the bit that I really loved about my work. When I moved into the Government Legal Department after that, I really enjoyed being there and being able to see not just the impact not just on an individual place or client, but a systemic impact.

I’ve always wanted to work in the Home Office so when my chance came I moved over. I guess I see myself pivoting around the legal side of the civil service, whether that’s in GLD, or outside in other areas. I’m really passionate about professionalising people so I can see myself in the space of building capability of our lawyers, somehow.

Have you ever experienced any difficulties in your career as a result of being out?

I feel that I have a place of privilege, because I don’t think I’ve had any negative impact – in fact, quite the opposite. I think it helped me as a more junior, younger lawyer, to go to LGBT events in the legal profession where you’d network with people across different levels. It enabled me to be better with my clients, because I would talk to them about going to [the UKVI office in] Croydon with my husband, to go through his immigration application and have our interview. So I have that empathy and credibility with them.

In the civil service, when I’m coaching people for interviews, I tell them that if there is anything that makes them a bit different, a bit ‘not the norm’, they should sell that as much as they can, and be really proud about that. That comes across really well in interviews, and helps people demonstrate some of their leadership. But also, you don’t want to work with a racist or homophobe so get that out on the table really early on.

I have always had great work environments, but problems exist – I pick it up when I support grievances or people having other issues in the workplace. There are pockets where on the outside, people are broadly accepting of diversity and understand why there is a benefit to the public in that we will make better decisions and do better work. But you still look a little bit below the surface, not all is quite right.

In particular, I think there are real struggles around trans rights. It feels like things are going backwards in the country as a whole – you look at how gay men were treated in the ‘80s and I don’t think it’s too far away from how lots of trans people are struggling now. That’s why it’s really important for people like me, who are in that place of privilege, to talk about those issues.

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