Gay KFC boss on building an inclusive environment for all LGBTQ+ staff: ‘It’s a safe haven’
Neil Piper has a unique claim to fame – he’s eaten KFC in about 35 different countries.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Neil just really likes KFC, but that’s not the full picture. He’s actually the company’s chief people officer (CPO), recently stepping up as interim general manager (GM).
He’s also an out and proud gay man who has spent years building his career, travelling the world and creating a family with his husband. In the 14 years since he joined KFC, Neil has ascended rapidly through the ranks, proving LGBTQ+ people can thrive when they’re lucky enough to find themselves in an inclusive environment.
That’s not to say it was all plain sailing. When he finished school, Neil decided to train as a PE teacher. But it wasn’t long before he realised it wasn’t the right fit.
Shortly after enrolling in the course, he decided he wanted to be a restaurateur.
“My dad quickly pointed out that that sounded fun, but with a sports science degree, nobody is going to lend you money to do that,” Neil laughs.
Neil decided to take his dad’s advice – instead of opening a restaurant of his own, he enrolled on a graduate programme in operations, finance and marketing with Mitchells & Butlers, a company that operates pubs and bars across the UK.
It wasn’t long before KFC came knocking.
“I’d had three conversations with headhunters about KFC and I’d said, ‘no thanks’ quite quickly each time,” Neil explains. “I was actually in the process for a role with another organisation, which I didn’t get, but the serendipitous moment was that the lady running that search had just left the role of chief people officer for KFC UK and she said, ‘you haven’t got this job… but if you ever hear from KFC I think you’d really like them and I think they’d really like you’.”
A few weeks later, Neil received yet another call about working at KFC. He decided to take the leap, and he joined the company working as an area operator. He was initially responsible for running 12 restaurants in the Wolverhampton area, but he’s risen rapidly through the ranks since then.
“It’s been 14 years which feels like the blink of an eye,” he says.
KFC’s Neil Piper swerved into HR, and he’s never looked back
When Neil started working at KFC, he knew he was ambitious and that he wanted to grow his career – but he could never have known just how far he would go.
It all started when he was offered the chance to cover maternity leave in HR. That opportunity resulted in his career taking an unexpected, if very welcome, turn.
“I’d never really worked in HR properly so I said, ‘yeah, that’ll be fun, I’ll do that’. I did that for 10 months, and at that point, I never went back. I think I found home at that point, in the people and culture function.”
He went on to serve as head of talent, and later as head of operations, HR and training, before he was offered the chance of a lifetime.
“At the end of 2014 I was offered the chance to move to Dallas, Texas, with my husband Tom to join our global team where I was director of global HR,” Neil says. “I never did the gap year thing so I got to scratch that itch with KFC. I’ve eaten KFC in 35 countries or something and I’ve got to travel to lots of really awesome places – India, Russia, South Africa, Thailand.”
He stayed in Dallas for three years and returned to the UK in 2017 to take up the position of chief people officer. In the five years since, he and his husband started their own family – they’re now proud dads to Xander and Bella.
“I was blessed to be able to make the most of our parental leave policy and took two chunks of six months out to be with our new arrivals, which was incredible.”
Neil’s remarkable journey culminated with him being asked to step into the role of interim general manager.
“It was just mindblowing,” Neil says. “I was quite surprised. I joined the business as a 24, 25 year old. In that time there had only been two managing directors and I was about to become the third. Even if it’s for the blink of an eye I get to play that role, I get to do that work. I’ve been doing that for the last few months and I’ll be doing that until the end of September when our permanent managing director arrives.”
He’s felt self-imposed ‘apprehension’ about being himself at work
Sadly, LGBTQ+ people still face discrimination all too often in the workplace. Neil counts himself as lucky he’s never faced any homophobia in his professional life – but that doesn’t mean it’s all been plain-sailing.
“I’ve never had an out, positive LGBTQ+ role model that I’ve seen in the work setting in a senior position so I feel like I now am that. Actually, on our executive team we are 20 per cent LGBTQ+ which is really strong representation. I think that tension of not having seen that and now being that for others, I take that as a real responsibility for visual representation.”
Because he never had any LGBTQ+ role models to look up to, Neil often grappled with an apprehension about showing up authentically in the workplace early in his career.
“I’ve experienced self-imposed apprehension. At times I’ve been in very male, heteronormative environments where there’s a lot of banter. I haven’t always found it easy to show up authentically in those settings.”
Neil has always been open about his sexuality at work, but the reality is that LGBTQ+ people often have to come out time and time again in their professional lives. He felt that most acutely when he moved to Dallas.
“I assumed because it was the same company that it would feel like a super easy transition, but actually reintroducing yourself to a whole office of people who don’t know you [is difficult] when they, through no fault of their own, are asking assumptive questions like, ‘did you come with your wife and do you guys have kids?’.”
That’s why Neil feels so passionately about having LGBTQ+ people in leadership positions. Those who lead an organisation should reflect humanity – and crucially, it should reflect its customer base.
“When your customers and your employees are the UK population, you’ve got to do your best to drive representation. But representation without inclusion is limited at best and useless at worst. It’s a lot easier to focus on representation, it’s a lot harder to really drive a culture of inclusion.”
Inclusion is central to Neil’s mission
Making KFC an inclusive workplace has been “a journey” and it remains a “daily commitment”, Neil says.
“It’s a discipline to be inclusive, consciously inclusive, because we all have bias and we all have a lived experience. Intersectionality is the most beautiful thing about humanity, but it’s also the trickiest when it comes to really understanding the nuance and the dynamic that you have to create for everyone to feel that they’ve got a seat at the table.”
It’s vital people feel they can show up as their authentic selves in the workplace, Neil says. That’s the culture he says they’re building at KFC, but that isn’t always easy for employees who have been conditioned to think they need to separate their work life from their personal life.
“There’s just one of you and you apply yourself in different contexts, but we just want you. That comes with your brilliance, your fears, your foibles. We want all of that.”
They also want people to be able to feel vulnerable at work, which is why they’ve introduced employee resource groups. They have specific groups for employees from ethnic minority backgrounds, for women, for people with neurodiversities, and for LGBTQ+ staff members. That group is aptly called Kentucky Fried Pride, and Neil is its executive sponsor. Core to the group has been making sure it’s accessible to staff working in restaurants across the UK and Ireland.
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“It galvanised this huge membership flurry straight away of people within the LGBTQ+ community and allies,” Neil says. “It’s rapidly got to over two and a half thousand people. We’re a 30,000 strong organisation so that’s really big membership, and it’s active membership.”
The group isn’t just there to celebrate KFC as a company – Neil and his corporate colleagues have encouraged members to challenge the company on policies so they can make a “meaningful difference”. Most recently, KFC has worked with Stonewall to review the language it uses in its policies to make sure it’s inclusive.
He’s been heartened to hear from LGBTQ+ staff working in restaurants about how KFC has become a “safe haven” for them. He recently had a lunch with trans employees and was amazed to hear them talk “so encouragingly and heartwarmingly about how KFC and the people they work with became their place of acceptance”.
“It really was so moving that this fried chicken shop can actually be so much more for people who need it,” Neil says.
“What does it mean to be included? It would be the four walls of the restaurant being a safe haven for people in our community that need it.”