In my experience, gay people go through the process of coming out three times. First, they come out to themselves and their immediate friends. It's about personal acceptance. The second time is to their family and wider community. This time it's about social acceptance. Finally, they come out in the workplace. This third time is about professional acceptance.
It shocks me how few gay people do the latter.
We're living through a remarkable era for LGBT rights. Ten years ago, few would have predicted that gay marriage would be not only legal but widely supported in most Western democracies. In that context, it's utterly astounding that it has taken so long for a Fortune 500 company to have an openly gay CEO.
The business community is running about 10 years behind the rest of society. Why?
I know many openly gay people who build convoluted arguments against coming out in the workplace. They have a fear it will hold their careers back. They delude themselves into thinking it is irrelevant. It's made more complex by the need to continually come out again every time they make a new close business connection. But I believe it's vital, not only for their sanity but because it makes them better businesspeople.
Trust is the foundation of relationships in any sphere, whether in romance, friendship, or business. I immensely dislike working with anyone -- colleague, client, or suppliers -- whom I feel I cannot trust.
The precursor to trust is honesty. When, on a Monday morning, someone at the office casually asks you about your weekend, when they ask you about your partner, or when they ask you about your vacations, if you don't answer honestly, you're not bringing your full, authentic self to the table. If you're unable to do that, your colleagues will start to have doubts about your integrity, and the trust they have in you will slowly be eroded. They might not be able to put their finger on what it is, but there will be something about you they don't quite understand.
It gives me great discomfort to watch so many gay people choose to put themselves at such a disadvantage. I know because I used to be one of them: out in my personal life but closeted at work. But five years ago I made the decision to be myself, and it has done nothing but benefit me professionally in ways I had never imagined. Perhaps the reluctance of so many gay people to be open in the workplace contributes to the slow pace of change.
For me, attending business school in America was the vehicle that made me appreciate that being gay and successful in business are complementary rather than contradictory. Moving from the UK to the U.S. exposed me to a world of LGBT-employee affinity groups and professional advocacy groups that I had never encountered in London. It was empowering and gave me confidence.
That's why it thrills me to see such groups take root in the UK, and to be involved in EurOUT at London Business School this weekend. EurOUT will unite LGBT campus organizations at leading European business schools and LGBT affinity groups from a wide spectrum of businesses for a two-day conference.
Such dialogue at a leading business school helps normalize discourse about LGBT issues among the business leaders of tomorrow. This is vital, as the business world still has a long way to go. Most notably, in 29 U.S. states it's still legal to fire someone because they are gay.
But none of this can happen unless gay professionals -- here and now -- contribute to the conversation. All gay people need to come out for the third time.
Tim Cook ends last week's seminal piece for Bloomberg Businessweek by writing, "This in my brick." In doing so, he laid the foundations for change in the business world. We're all capable of laying our own bricks and building this change. So here's to you, Tim: This is my brick.