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John Browne, the former CEO of British Petroleum, captures his own career experience by describing a presentation made by an employee at Raytheon to its senior management:
“I want you to go back to your offices and shut the door. Then I want you to remove all vestiges of your family, particularly your spouse. Put the pictures in the drawer and take off your wedding band.
You cannot talk about your family and where you went on vacation. And if your spouse is seriously ill, you are afraid to acknowledge your relationship because you are afraid you might lose your job.
Do all of that and see how productive you are.”
In his book, The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out is Good Business, Browne shares his experiences of hiding his personal life. In doing so he examines the culture of discrimination that often prevents employees from being their best in the workplace.
Browne was CEO of BP for more than 12 years until he was ousted when the British media had a field day with the revelation that he was having an affair—with another man.
At the time, it could be argued, he was at the height of his career. He was voted Most Admired CEO by Management Today from 1999 to 2002. He was awarded 18 honorary degrees and was knighted in 1998. The author of two business books, he held degrees from Cambridge and Stanford Universities.
The Glass Closet shares his personal story, along with those of prominent leaders, celebrities, and members of the LGBT community. Among Browne’s goals are to demonstrate why, despite the risks, self-disclosure is best for employees and that doing so directly contributes to their companies’ profitability.
Browne’s premise is that despite the progress in recent years, gay rights remain a serious issue. Unfortunately, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, corporations are not doing all they can to lead the way. Ultimately, that is hurting companies and economies.
The author states the war for talent as “the principal reason that an increasing number of Fortune 500 companies see LGBT inclusiveness not as an option but as a necessity.” In 2002, 61 percent of those companies included sexual orientation in their corporate policies. By 2014, 91 percent prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Browne cites Louisville, Kentucky as one of the cities where change at numerous companies has been remarkable. Led by such companies as Brown-Forman, companies have worked through their policies to insure diversity.
“It’s far more costly for people to be in the closet, it’s just that you don’t see the impact,” says Ralph de Chabert, Brown-Forman’s chief diversity officer. “The impact is that you don’t get the creativity, productivity and innovation that you would have gotten otherwise.”
In addition to his career story and an exploration of the reasons companies profit from practices of inclusion, The Glass Closet is a call to action. Browne suggests that every company needs to set a clear, consistent direction to make LGBT people feel included, starting with policies. Second, companies must ensure that the tools of management are in place for such policies to be implemented. Browne lists seven actions in order to succeed, including actively setting direction from the top and clarifying expectations.
Such actions have proven successful for many of the world’s biggest corporations including JPMorgan Chase, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Apple and Campbell Soup, among others. Many corporations require that such policies extend to dealing with external suppliers. IBM’s supplier guidelines state that suppliers cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Browne also points out that “generational change is solving much of the problem of LGBT inclusion.” More and more young people entering the workforce have a different perspective on LBGT issues than previous generations.
Progress, however, must be actively pursued, Browne cautions. When businesses implement LBGT policies, it can be transformative for the entire organization whether medium-sized companies to a company like BP, the third largest in the world.
While leadership is essential to this change, ultimately, responsibility relies on LBGT employees, Browne says. These individuals set an encouraging example for men and women in the business world and for the acceptance of diversity in general.
With his distinguished career, Browne deserves applause for his leadership in the business world and his struggle with personal circumstances to succeed. With The Glass Closet, he has proven himself to be a leader against discrimination, one whose efforts deserve high praise.