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Why Coming Out Is Good Business

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Over the course of my career at BP, from apprentice to chief executive, I led two separate lives. The first one involved negotiating with leaders such as Putin and Qaddafi, doing business with Russian oligarchs and Arabian princes, and being the public face of one of the world's largest companies. The second was my private life as a gay man. In 2007, those two worlds collided when a former boyfriend sold stories about my private life to a British tabloid newspaper. I made a fatal error of judgement, choosing to lie to a court in an attempt to protect my privacy. I resigned, and lost the career that had structured my entire professional life.

The idea that I would eventually write The Glass Closet, a book about being gay in business, would have been incredible and terrifying. When I was growing up in the 1960s, homosexuality was illegal in Britain. I was at boarding school when I realized I was gay, but society made sure that I kept my sexuality to myself. I heard of men going to prison, boys being expelled from school, and individuals just disappearing in hushed whispers. While I was at Cambridge University, the law was changed, but the message was clear: homosexuality was still wrong.

When I joined BP as a graduate trainee in 1966, it was immediately obvious to me that it was unacceptable to be gay in business, and most definitely in the oil business. It was a macho and sometimes homophobic environment, and I felt that I had to conform. I avoided social occasions where the absence of a wife or girlfriend might have been questioned, and if anybody challenged me, I evaded them or changed the subject. BP became my family, and as I progressed through the ranks of the company, I saw absolutely no purpose in coming out. The corporate ladder was slippery enough on its own, without complicating things by throwing oil on the rungs.

By the time I became chief executive, I regarded personal discretion as vital to BP's interests. I was worried that any disclosure would damage critical business relationships, particularly those in the Middle East. Being chief executive comes with prestige and deference, so people rarely asked awkward questions, even though many of them suspected or knew that I was gay. Putin, for example, has files on everybody. In any case, leading a private life would have been difficult, because security guards followed my every movement and guarded the door to my hotel rooms. The closet was firmly nailed shut. I concluded that keeping my professional and personal worlds separate was better for each of them.

Being in the closet certainly seemed to have some advantages. I learned to keep my emotions hidden, which was an enormous asset in business negotiations. At times, I found my double life thrilling and I thought that conducting it somehow improved my skill at sensing danger, as if I were James Bond in training. I also listened closely to my mother, an Auschwitz survivor, who advised me never to trust anybody with my secrets. History demonstrates that when society is in trouble, minorities usually suffer, and so I thought that staying in the closet was the prudent thing to do.

In hindsight, I was very wrong. The environment for LGBT people underwent profound change over the course of my career, but being in the closet prevented me from seeing this clearly. It also exacted a huge personal toll, making me deeply unhappy and a more reserved business leader as a result. I wish I had been brave enough to come out sooner during my tenure as chief executive. The reactions of friends, colleagues and the hundreds of people who wrote letters of support demonstrated that my worst fears would not have come true.

I have spent the past 18 months conducting research and interviews for The Glass Closet. Young executives in their 20s should be free of the fears that plagued me for over 40 years, but in an age of diversity targets, corporate LGBT networks and equal marriage, many are still afraid of the consequences of coming out. That takes a personal toll on them, as they suppress part of their identity and devote mental energy to managing a double life. But it also takes a huge toll on their businesses, which suffer when employees are preoccupied by something other than their work. Very few can look to their chief executive to set an example, because there is not one openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

An environment in which people feel comfortable enough to come out at work is good for employees and it is good for business. To create that environment, business leaders must set a clear tone from the top. They must proactively make LGBT inclusion part of the chief executive's agenda, rather than delegating it to the human resources department or to a company network. They should also harness the support of the straight majority, because only straight people can create the safe space for gay people to come out. That might sound obvious, but few corporate LGBT networks have meaningful participation from so-called straight allies, which means that they are unlikely to have an impact.

Most importantly, business leaders must identify and celebrate role models. Company policies and behavioral change can create the right space for people to come out, but role models prove that it is possible and worthwhile. That is why The Glass Closet is full of stories, and it is why I set up glasscloset.org, where gay and straight people can share their stories of sexuality in the workplace. If closeted employees can identify with someone who has been through the closet door and succeeded, then they are more likely to let go of the fears that hold them back. At BP, I did not have an openly gay role model, nor did I have the advantage of looking to another chief executive for precedent. Without a gay role model, I failed to be one for others.

I spent four decades of my professional life hiding part of my identity. Being in the closet did not harm my career, but it came with a huge personal cost. It is my hope that The Glass Closet will encourage people in business today to avoid the mistakes I made, and to bring their whole selves to work.

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Lord John Browne is a former CEO of BP, author of The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business and the founder of glasscloset.org an online resource.