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Glass closet: Why coming out is good business

The former chief executive of BP argues in a new book that keeping homosexual workers in a glass closet is harmful for a company’s bottom line.

When Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper outed John Browne, the then CEO of global oil giant BP, in a kiss-n-tell expose by a former lover, he resigned in shame the same day.

Browne had spent more than 38 years in the closet at work, believing a gay man would never be accepted in the top echelons of the corporate world.

Seven years later Browne, now a member of the UK’s House of Lords, has written a book saying exactly the opposite. Not only is it critical for employees to be able to be open about their sexuality at work, he says, but not encouraging openness is bad for business.

His argument is unequivocal: firms that allow their staff to be open and honest make more money than companies that encourage homosexual employees to stay in the closet.

In The glass closet: Why coming out is good business, Browne’s examines his career and the implications of his decision to hide his homosexuality. He also talks to dozens of other professionals and industry leaders about the issue.

His conclusion is that while public attitudes to homosexuality have changed considerably over the last decade or so ­– as witnessed by the recent passing of same-sex marriage legislation in several countries – the corporate world has not necessarily changed.

He quotes figures showing 41% of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) employees in the US remain in the closet at work, as do 34% of their counterparts in the UK.

One reason is a lack of role models, he argues. As of the end of 2013 there was no openly gay CEO in the Fortune 500; not because of a lack of talent among gay executives, but because of fear.

“Anxiety still grips LGBT employees, from the factory floor all the way to the chief executive’s office.”

Browne argues there are three reasons why homophobia – or perceived homophobia – is bad for business.

First, in the war for talent, it is important that companies are not only prepared to take on LGBT employees, but are unambiguous about their openness. In one US survey, 80% of LGBT respondents said it was important for their potential employer to have equality and diversity policies already in place. The figure in the UK was 72%.

Browne says companies are already recognizing the wisdom of that argument, introducing anti gender discrimination policies and extending company healthcare benefits to same-sex partners.

Second, Browne argues closeted employees are less productive – potentially 10% less than those who are out at work. Having to suppress your personal life at work is stressful and makes it difficult to interact openly with colleagues.

As American software engineer Louise Young put it to a top-ranking symposium at defense contractor Raytheon:

“I want you to go back to your offices after this conference 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. If your spouse or partner is seriously ill, you are afraid to acknowledge your relationships because you are afraid you might lose your job.

“Do all that and see how productive you are.”

Third, Browne argues that having an open – even welcoming – culture in terms of LGBT staff is good for sales. He says the overall buying power of the LGBT market was estimated at $900 billion in 2013; in the UK it is worth at least $130 billion.

However, he says customers are discerning; they don’t just support companies with cleverly targeted marketing campaigns.

“Buying a billboard and plastering it with images of apparently gay men will not make a lasting image. The gay consumer is increasingly wary of gimmicks, and instead seeks a sustained, sincere commitment to LGBT issues.”

This is one reason the Human Rights Campaign in the US launched its Buyer’s Guide, he says. The guide scores businesses according to their how much they embrace workplace equality.

As Martin Sorrell, chief executive of multi-national advertising and public relations firm WPP says: “The commercial power of the gay community is sufficient to make people think carefully about opening their mouths, and once they do open their mouths, to do the right thing.”

The glass closet: Why coming out is good business By John Browne Published by Random House

Price: $34.99

Chief editor at Idealog, Nikki's a veteran in the journalism industry. A former lecturer at AUT University, she was the chief reporter at NZ weekly business publication The Independent and was deputy editor of Canadian publication Unlimited magazine.

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