Former BP CEO: 'Glass Closet' Still Holds Many Gay Workers Back

Jun 12, 2014
Originally published on September 23, 2014 6:01 am

"It was time to leave the building."

So begins a new book by John Browne, former CEO of the energy giant BP. But that sentence could easily have read: "It was time to leave the closet."

During his 12 years as CEO, he never discussed his sexuality in the workplace. That changed in 2007, when his relationship with a male escort was exposed and Browne resigned amid an ensuing scandal. At the time, he said in a statement, "I have always regarded my sexuality as a personal matter, to be kept private."

The presumption in the business world "is that everyone is straight," Browne tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "The presumption is that a man will have photographs on his desk of his wife and children."

But looking back today, he says "it would have been better to come out, rather than not." So Browne has written a manifesto, The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good For Business. In it, he shares his regrets and urges business to create a more supportive environment for gay and lesbian employees.


Interview Highlights

On growing up in the '50s and '60s and deciding not to be open about his sexuality

My late mother's attitudes to difference [were a significant influence]. She was a Holocaust survivor and her line always to me was, 'Don't be different, because difference is always picked up when something goes wrong. Minorities are always persecuted for being different when times are no good.'

So, I decided very early on that the best thing was to not expose my sexuality because it would be unacceptable or dangerous.

On being gay in today's business world

The world is full of straight people, and straight people need to do something to make it possible for gay people to come out in a safe way. I think in business there is a great presumption that everyone's straight. That the world is made of heterosexual people. ...

If you look at the S&P 500, there isn't one out gay CEO. So, it is a clubby experience. I mean, I think many people have an unconscious bias, they do tend to select people like themselves, and so therefore they [exclude] people who are a bit different. ...

Hiding sexuality is something which takes away from the overall productivity, the way in which people work, and it's bound to do something which is not good for business.

On stepping down over a scandal involving a male escort

I made some errors of judgment. And one of those errors of judgment was to start a relationship, and the second one was to lie in a court document on how I met him. A trivial point but a very — nonetheless, a fatal mistake in my view. ...

If you want to hide your sexuality, it's very difficult to find people in the open. Therefore, you might go elsewhere and you begin to create a pretty dangerous situation. And one of the reasons I wrote this book was to make sure that people could, from my own experience, hopefully never get into that situation ever again.

On moving from someone who was secretive about his personal life to being an activist

I hope I can make up for lost time by doing what I can now to encourage people to be role models — to come out and be role models — so that people can see how you can succeed regardless of your sexuality.

It was an extraordinary event to have to leave — resign — from BP on that one day and to be pulled out; I didn't come out. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I've been able to bring both sides of my life together, to be much less reserved, more flexible and outgoing and to create a brand new life [in] which I've put all sorts of different things into in creating a very rich life for myself and my partner going forward.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. It was time to leave the building. So begins a new book by John Browne, the former CEO of BP. But it may as well have read it was time to leave the closet. Browne served as CEO for over 12 years and in all that time, his sexuality was never discussed. Until he resigned in 2007, after a scandal over a soured relationship with a male escort. At that time, he wrote in a statement (reading) I have always regarded my sexuality as a personal matter to be kept private. Now John Browne's written a manifesto urging business to create a better environment for gay and lesbian employees. It's called "The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good For Business."

JOHN BROWNE: Looking back over my experience, I realized that had I played it all over again, it would've been better to come out rather than not to come out. I lived a very complicated life, where the two separate lives collided to create what was then the events of late May 2007 when I resigned from BP.

CORNISH: Let's go back a little bit because in the book you describe your childhood and you don't describe growing up bullied or seeing violent homophobia. Give us a sense of what you did think the limitations were when it came to gay people.

BROWNE: I think first, of course, was that the society of the fifties and sixties, when homosexuality was regarded as something which was not socially acceptable and actually was a criminal offense. The second was my late mother's attitudes to difference. She was a Holocaust survivor and her line always to me was don't be different. Because difference is always picked up when something goes wrong. Minorities are always persecuted for being different when times are no good. So I decided very early on that the best thing was to not expose my sexuality because it would be unacceptable or dangerous.

CORNISH: John Browne, in the book you talk about stepping down because of the scandal involving an escort. As you write (reading) I lived in the closet and got myself into a mess with an escort. You say you don't consider yourself a victim in any way.

BROWNE: No I don't. I think I made some errors of judgment and one of those errors of judgment was to start a relationship and the second one was to lie in a court document on how I met him. A trivial point, but a very, nonetheless, a fatal mistake in my view.

CORNISH: At the same time, it seems as though you believe that this wouldn't have necessarily happened if you were out about your sexuality. But arguably, wouldn't this have happened even with a straight CEO? I mean, messing around with an escort is a problem no matter who you are when you're a top executive.

BROWNE: I think I would suggest that maybe there are plenty of other options for a straight CEO to meet someone of the opposite sex. I think you have to take the whole situation in one. If you want to hide your sexuality, it's very difficult to find people in the open. Therefore, you might go elsewhere. You begin to create a pretty dangerous situation. And one of the reasons I wrote this book was to make sure that people could, from my own experience, hopefully never get into that situation ever again. And secondly, I think to make the point that the world is full of straight people and straight people need to do something to make it possible for gay people to come out in a, in a safe way. I think in business there is a great presumption that everyone's straight. That the world is made of heterosexual people. And the presumption is that a man will have photographs on the desk of a wife and children, so there is a presumption of heterosexuality. And it is something that is generally, I think, still in the minds of many people in business.

CORNISH: But is it reflective of a general clubiness in the business world? A clubbiness that locks out women and minorities, especially at the higher levels.

BROWNE: Yes and certainly if you look at the S&P 500, there isn't one out gay CEO. So it is a clubby experience and I think many people have an unconscious bias. They do tend to select people like themselves. And so therefore, they select out people who are a bit different.

CORNISH: What kind of regrets have you had about what more you could have done had you come out when you were CEO? Not just for your personal life, but for workers and creating the kind of environment you're asking other businesses to create now?

BROWNE: Well, I wish I could have done that. It's all hypothetical, of course, because I didn't. I wish I were out and was a role model. I hope I can make up for lost time by doing what I can now to encourage people to be role models, to come out, be role models so that people can see how you can succeed regardless of your sexuality.

CORNISH: But was that your take away from the book? You have many people who still want to be anonymous, who refuse interviews. Does it necessarily describe the open environment that you're talking about?

BROWNE: It's true but there's a balance, I think there are rather more people that I talked to who were quite keen to come out. And there were some who didn't want to come out or who were out in their private lives to an extent but not out in their business lives. Those people further reinforced my view that more work is needed in this area. Hiding sexuality is something which takes away from the overall productivity, the way in which people work. And it's bound to do something which is not good for business.

CORNISH: You applaud the work of LGBT resource groups. There was one Houston BP office where the group once handed out cupcakes and kitchen magnets reading bring yourself to work. What do you say to somebody who doesn't want to share his or her personal life with colleagues? You know, that say work should be work.

BROWNE: It's very much, of course, a personal decision. There's no formula here which says you are required to come out. I just hope that those who feel there's just a chance they might feel more comfortable as their whole selves, that the environment is set for them to be able to be who they are, not who other people expect them to be.

CORNISH: In the end, what has this transition been like for you? When you look back and think of yourself, somebody who was so secretive about their life hiding their personal life, to now almost an activist.

BROWNE: Well, if it was, it was an extraordinary event to have to leave or resign from BP on that one day and to be pulled out, I didn't come out. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I have been able to bring both sides of my life together to be much less reserved, more flexible and outgoing. And to create a brand new life, which I've put all sorts of different things into, and creating very rich life for myself and my partner going forward.

CORNISH: John Browne is the former CEO of BP and author of the new book "The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business." Lord Browne, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BROWNE: Thank you very much, indeed.

BLOCK: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.