Monday, January 05, 2015

The Power of Coming Out at Work

Lord Browne

Living in the closet is psychological and emotionally damaging.  Moreover, it takes a huge amount of time and effort that would be/is better spent on living a fulfilling life that is not haunted by the fear of being "outed."   In the business world being in the closet is similarly detrimental and wastes energy and creativity that could be better used to further one's business and career.  Sadly, since 29 states still provide no employment protections to LGBT employees, many still feel the need to hide their real lives at work.  I was in the closet at work after coming out for several years and it was exhausting.  Former BP CEO John Browne looks at the issue in a column in The Advocate.  Here are excerpts:

But by deciding to disclose his sexuality, [Apple CEO Tim] Cook has united his public and private lives. He will no longer have to devote valuable energy to concealing part of his identity, energy that can now be used productively in the pursuit of more fulfilling personal and professional lives. He has shown bravery many others and I did not have.

In an effort to maintain my double life, I made three fatal errors of judgement. First, in an attempt to reduce the risk of somebody finding out my secret, I met a man on an escort website. Second, I built a relationship with him, and was surprised when he sold our story to a British tabloid newspaper. Third, I went to court in an attempt to protect my privacy and lied in a legal document about how we met each other. I reversed that lie within days, but the case eventually collapsed. I resigned and lost the career that had structured my entire professional life.

When I was dragged out of the closet, my worst fears did not come true. I gained friends, lead a more fulfilling private life, and have a wider set of business contacts as a result. Many of the people I interviewed for The Glass Closet expressed a desire to come out, but only when “the time is right.” For some, that meant after a promotion, and for others — particularly athletes — it meant after retirement. For me, the “right time” would never come because I had invested too much in my double life.
Evidence suggests that around one third of LGBT people remain in the closet at work. In writing The Glass Closet, I spoke to men and women around the world who, despite living in an age of diversity targets, LGBT corporate networks, and equal marriage, are still afraid of the consequences of coming out. That takes a personal toll on them; they fail to build a unified private and professional life, to the detriment of both. But it also takes a huge toll on their businesses, which suffer when employees do not feel included and are preoccupied by something other than their work. Companies with a fully engaged workforce outperform their peers by an average of 2% per year, every year for 20 years. The return to an inclusive environment is enormous, and in my experience, there are two things that business leaders can do to create that environment for LGBT people.

The first is to set the right tone from the top. Leaders who take LGBT inclusion seriously should dedicate a fixed amount of time to it, and ensure that positive messages are accompanied by meaningful changes in behavior, rather than processes that can be ignored. If leaders are asking people to bring their whole selves to work, they must also lead by example.

The second thing that leaders can do is identify and celebrate role models. Role models are not examples to emulate but sources of inspiration that teach us something we can apply to our own circumstances. . . . Anybody struggling with a hidden life should take inspiration from these role models, and any leader who wants to create a safe and inclusive environment should celebrate them. They demonstrate that it is possible to come out and succeed.

Change does not happen unless individuals take their careers into their own hands and find the courage to step out of the closet into the true beauty beyond.

Business sometimes clings to the past and lags behind progress in society. But at its best, it is the engine of human progress. From apartheid to the fight against climate change, and from equal pay to equal marriage, business has been at the forefront of social change. Cook’s announcement represents several more bricks in the wall of LGBT acceptance and inclusion, but I am convinced that the best is yet to come.

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