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Alexis Petru headshot

Former BP CEO Makes the Business Case for LGBT Equality

By Alexis Petru

A few years before Tony Hayward resigned as head of BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the previous BP CEO, John Browne, was forced to bow out from the company over a much different scandal: He was outed as gay by a British tabloid. Now the former executive has written a book about his experience, “The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business,” and is advocating for the rights of gays and lesbians in the workplace.

Released in May, “The Glass Closet” details Browne’s double life as a CEO and a closeted gay man and tells the stories of other gay and lesbian professionals coming out at work. The book concludes with an open letter to CEOs about why promoting an inclusive environment for LGBT employees isn’t solely a civil rights issue or moral imperative for companies – it’s a smart business decision.

“Inclusion creates a level playing field, which allows the best talent to rise to the top,” Browne writes, in a book excerpt published in Fast Company.

In order for employees to do great work, they can’t devote a quarter of their brain power to hiding their sexual orientation, Browne writes; employees perform best when they are applying their whole brain to their job. Browne points to studies that show an LGBT-friendly work environment can increase productivity up to 30 percent, in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.

LGBT inclusion cannot only help companies nurture and retain their top workers, but it can also assist them in recruiting talent. In one survey, around 80 percent of gay and lesbian Americans said that when they were applying for a job, it was “very important” or “fairly important” for the potential employer to have an LGBT equality and diversity policy in place, Browne writes. When the same survey was carried out in the United Kingdom, 72 percent of respondents agreed.

Wall Street has taken notice, Browne says: After Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein appeared in a Human Rights Campaign video supporting same-sex marriage in 2012, he admitted that his political stance caused his firm to lose at least one major client. But Blankfein defended his video appearance to the media, explaining that an accepting work environment attracts top-notch employees and implying that this recruitment strategy is more important than driving off a customer.

But can a pro-LGBT workplace result in higher profits? Starbucks announced its support for marriage equality in 2012, Browne writes, leading to a strong boycott and social media campaign from an anti-same-sex-marriage group. A year after the backlash, an angry shareholder addressed the company’s annual shareholder meeting, blaming the coffee giant’s political position for its less-than-stellar earnings in the quarter after the campaign. In response, Starbucks Chairman and Chief Executive Howard Schultz said that, “Not every decision is an economic decision …We employ over 200,000 people in this company, and we want to embrace diversity. Of all kinds.”

Browne is careful to differentiate between diversity and inclusion: “Having a certain number of employees from diverse backgrounds will do little to help a business unless those employees are made to feel welcome and valued,” he writes. Policies that formalize a company’s pro-LGBT stance are a good place to start, according to Browne: Guidelines can be tracked and measured against existing laws and other companies’ commitments to workplace inclusion.

The working world is changing, slowly becoming more welcoming to gay and lesbian individuals, Browne says. He notes that in 2002, 61 percent of Fortune 500 companies prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, and only 3 percent banned gender-identity discrimination. By 2014, these numbers jumped dramatically, with 91 percent of Fortune 500 companies including sexual orientation in their corporate anti-discrimination policies and 61 percent including gender identity.

But Browne says we still have a long way to go before the workplace is truly equal for LGBT workers. Many of the individuals he interviewed for his book wished to remain anonymous, he told Bloomberg Businessweek, and there are currently no publicly gay chief executives at any Fortune 500 company, the New York Times reported.

Browne hopes “The Glass Closet” will open up a discussion about LGBT inclusion in the workplace and has launched GlassCloset.org to continue the conversation, encouraging gay and lesbian professionals to submit their own personal stories about coming out at work.

“As an executive in business, I did not have an openly gay role model to whom I could aspire,” Browne writes on the website. “That is why I launched GlassCloset.org, as a place for people to share their stories and to become role models for those struggling with a hidden life.”

Browne has continued to achieve professional and personal success after his resignation from BP, according to the New York Times -- he is a partner at a private equity firm, serves as a member of the House of Lords and found love with a man who wrote him a letter after his resignation – but he wishes he hadn’t lived so much of his life in the closet.

“I wish I had been brave enough to come out earlier during my tenure as chief executive of BP,” he writes on GlassDoor.org. “I regret it to this day.”

Image credit: Flickr/Kevin Goebel

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru headshot

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

Read more stories by Alexis Petru