on 16 August 2014
The Glass Closet : why coming out is good for business
John Browne, on his journey to become BP’s CEO, apparently found himself on a tour of duty in the USA. On trips to California with rednecked colleagues, he had to endure the prevailing hospitality culture.
“At night, the entire group would head to a strip club to drink whiskey and gin and to chain-smoke. Women, dimly lit by flashing lights, would wiggle around. It was appalling and I was not fond of going, but I never refused. I had to blend in”.
This quote - with its last line so telling - is perhaps a good place to open a notice of what is an emphatic apologia pro vita sua as well as a summons to the business community and the world at large (urbi et orbi, as it were) to realise the value of openness and tolerance in matters of sexual identity and behaviour. That John Browne is gay was publicly exposed in the media in 2007 following a brief and unsuccessful legal battle to suppress details of an affair with a much younger man (a “male escort”, as he is described here). John had long kept his sexuality a private matter; indeed, as his narrative makes clear he had purposefully obscured it from just about everyone he knew throughout his entire life. This said, it is not hard to imagine how excruciating that prurient tabloid ransacking of his life must have been. That he is now able to comment openly and confidently about himself as a sexual being and that - from the tone of this book at least - he seems to be relishing his liberation does pre-set the story to something of a happy ending.
But. This is an odd book, troubled and troubling, which either as an autobiography or a business primer settles nothing.
Yes, there is a thoroughly well-meaning determination to prove that “coming out is best for employees”. Having interviewed many gay executives and having learned of the difficulties they have faced in their careers and face still, he offers a lot of what we will loosely call diversity advice to the business community at large - along with summaries of research exercises which seem to prove that business does better when gay employees are accepted and encouraged. Living in the closet distorts human energy, stressing talented people away from a total focus on the jobs and targets. Such bad karma must be expelled. Employees happy and open in their sexuality make for better companies. The facts prove it.
Now, we hold to this line of thought as we turn to page 178. John reflects on his own life and experience:
“As Chief Executive, I felt that I could not follow the lead of politicians, public figures or even employees within BP who were coming out. I did not want to mire BP in any scandal, nor did I want to undermine the company’s standing in conservative countries, where we were responsible for providing employment for tens of thousands of people”.
More than a scent of casuistry seasoned with hyperbole here, no? Is he really saying that there was in his view a strong business case for not personally coming out - and that there are conditions in which this would still be true even today? Well, it is more than implied. And what really was the scandal from which he kept his company being mired? Just how bad could things really get? Is he really saying that had he at any time brought his male partner along to the BP Board Annual Dinner & Dance, lots of BP people in Africa and Asia would have lost their jobs as a direct result? That seems to be where we are headed.
Earlier in The Glass Closet, John throws out another apparently banal but really rather loaded line : “The experience of coming out varies from person to person. It is shaped by factors including age, region, occupation, level of seniority, religious background and family circumstances”.
Level of seniority?
Does that mean different expectations, different standards applied to himself - not just when he was CEO but during all the years when he was on the way up there? This vibe of I-did-what-I-had-to-do-because-I-was-special subtracts substantially from the plea for tolerance and respect which is meant to be at the heart of the story. John Browne is a man very proud of his achievements (“quintupling” BP’s market value is one he specifically mentions) and many would not disagree with him in this. But he does say here that as he progressed through the ranks, he made his tactical career calculations and “considered the trade-offs that would be necessary”. Hmm. Just how sorry are we meant to feel for him now? And just how valid a commentator on the travails of LGBT employees can he be?
In many parts of the world, of course, life for gay people totally sucks. The behaviour of some governments and religious leaderships - we all know who they are - in fuelling hatred of homosexuals (all too often to the point where their lives and livelihoods are seriously at risk) speaks of just how precarious is the benign liberal consensus so painfully won in the West. All of us, gay and straight alike, might well thus reflect on this question : just what is the nature of the responsibility of big business to confront bigotry and discrimination abroad? Do we expect our Western multinationals to be decency ambassadors, plenipotentiary enforcers of our values, as they do their deals in Russia and Saudi Arabia and Uganda and Malaysia? Should we insist?
John Browne is someone from whom we should expect big answers, leadership answers. But he fumbles and fudges here. Yes, there is a (suspiciously short) section here called “Working in ‘Conservative Countries’” which offers best practice ideas and handy tips for HR managers as they post gay employees out from the liberal mother ship and into the badlands. But the bigger bullet is just not bit. In an earlier chapter, he speaks approvingly of a senior manager at IBM who has declared that her company simply will not accept discriminatory attitudes - any racism or sexism - from those with whom it trades. But how far does the former “Sun King of the oil industry” think business should take this theme? Does he say that, in the interests of promoting shareholder value in all quarters, we simply and sadly have to deal with people whose aggressive bigotry we privately deplore? Or is he saying that the IBM attitude is the one that all companies should at least try to pro-actively share, whatever the costs? Well?
In a section devoted to the everyday, state-sanctioned ghastliness that faces gay people in Russia, much is made by the author of his sometime (“cordial”) relationship with Vladimir Putin. And once more you can feel the punch being pulled. Though they met frequently, “we never strayed on to personal matters”. But, hold on, the whole point of this book is that how gay people are treated in business and society is very distinctly a political matter. To suddenly define it as personal just because you are dealing with a head of state or a prime minister is to dilute that claim to be a leadership commentator on the condition of gay people. Is not talking about gay rights the same as not talking about your golf swing problems or your fondness for Brahms? And, John, to say that Russia’s anti-gay legislation is more “political posturing” than “sincere disgust for gay people” is just plain wrong of you. Tell that to Pussy Riot and Gay Pride in Moscow. Just because some anti-gay individuals have high rank does not mean that their crimes should be discounted. You had chances to speak truth to power here about what was probably the biggest issue in your life. But, as it would seem, all the chances were lost along the way to some higher ambition.
Finally, the most immediately strange aspect of The Glass Closet is the cliché-infested banality of much of the writing. As you read, this becomes downright suspicious. “Today’s young people do not flinch at the thought of turning to the Internet” / “Sexuality does not define anyone but it is undoubtedly a significant portion of their identity”/ “We must remember that all societies develop at a different pace” / “Politics is built on trust” … and tons more of stuff in this mode. This does not seem like a question of poor prose management or under-powered editing - more like proof of occasional but significant lapses in self-awareness or even an unconscious desire not to be too precise about things. For such an intelligent man to write quite so badly about an agenda for which he claims a passion does make you wonder about what he is ultimately trying to impart. In the end, I am personally not entirely sure.
To work in your average big company in the 70s and 80s was to know the sheer, daily casualness of attitudes properly deprecated today. The racist humour, the sexist leering, the ridiculing of minorities, the provincial dismissiveness towards anyone who was a bit different… No wonder many went to work, did their job and, about matters personal, kept their mouths shut. In this sense, I guess BP was no worse than and probably better than most places. It is a grace to live in a much more enlightened age. As one ex-BP employee to another, I would just say to Lord Browne that I wish he had put his formidable powers to the business of hastening that enlightenment a long time ago.