Whether to be Out at work? Former BP boss reflects.

BCN 125 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 125, June 2014

Book review. The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out is Good for Business – John Browne. Published by HarperCollins, June 2014.

John Browne is the ex CEO of BP who was forced out of the closet in 2007 after his ex partner sold his story to newspapers. The book may not have a bisexual focus but consider this: in 2013 there were no openly LGBT people at Chief Executive level in Fortune 500 or equivalent companies. The Glass Closet is as such a remarkable book where someone at that level of business explains why being out as LGBT is still a problem for employees and why that is bad for business as well as individual workers.

The first chapter of the book covers who John is and was, the circumstances around his public outing and what he lost by not coming out sooner.

The next several chapters provide a background to LGBT rights in the US and the UK. This proves key later on in the book since it starts to explain to people reading who may not understand why coming out can still be a difficult issue despite how much further forward the law is regarding the rights of LGBT people than was the case a decade or two ago.

There are a number of interviews with people of all levels of business within the UK and the US who are out and still in the closet. He clearly states the reasons and prejudice that keep the closeted people from coming out. People who have asked to remain anonymous in the book even to the extent of asking that in addition to their name being changed the city they work in is not published.

A key thread in the book looks at how corporations can encourage an atmosphere where employees feel able to come out without repercussions. This included the responsibility of role models to be open and visible within the organisation to prove by example that the business will support career development for all people.

The last few chapters are about the responsibilities of LGBT people in business to be open and support the business as it moves forward. Two points particularly rang true with me.

  • Be brave – “Those of us with the opportunity to live freely should seize it.”
  • Be tolerant – “Prejudice exists and will continue against many groups…… Remaining attentive to discrimination is important but so to is recognising that people occasionally make insensitive comments. People must have the confidence to separate poorly judged actions from malicious ones.”

While the book is overwhelmingly written from the perspective of a gay man (John is after all a gay man) he has been careful to include interviews and experiences from out lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. He’s also been careful to highlight bad stories as well as success.

The bisexual stories in the book are from a person currently working in the oil and gas industry. She returned to and remains in the closet after leaving industry to come out in graduate school, only to find the prejudice there was so bad that when she left to go back into industry she returned to the closet.

He mentions Kyrsten Sinema, the first openly bisexual congresswoman in the USA as being among the growing numbers of openly LGBT politicians around the world.

He also talks about the steps being taken in business by Goldmann Sachs in London who in 2012 got a bisexual film maker to come in and premier his documentary film with a panel discussion following.

In summary the book is a call to action for both businesses and LGBT staff, business has done a lot to improve in the last 10 years particularly. He makes it very clear that he regrets not coming out sooner but also recognises the difficulties of coming out. He clearly states his views that staying in or returning to the closet is a bad choice.

I enjoyed reading the book and am certainly going to recommend it to some of the executives I know where I work. I am looking forward to September when Lord John Browne is coming to speak at my workplace’s LGBT network group regional conference (a shameless plug! – ed).

On a personal note from my own experience of coming out visibly to the wider business rather than just my team has, until this point, only had a positive impact on my career. I am more engaged in the business as a whole, the business notices that and pushes forward staff who are engaged and ambitious. My being visibly out as a manager has given at least two other people that I know of the courage to come out themselves since they saw that it did not have a negative impact on my career. I’d encourage you as John Browne says to “be Brave” and stand up to be a role model in your business. Particularly if you don’t see any around you.

Standing up first can be lonely but I’ve found that I wasn’t standing up alone for very long since other people followed. Now I just need them to come forward and help organise events outside of London!

Emma

At the time of writing The Glass Closet is available on amazon in hardback for £11.55 or on kindle for £5.69.