Ex-BP CEO John Browne champions LGBT rights at the workplace

LGBT in employmentFor most gay men and women, the ‘coming out’ process happens gradually, if it happens at all. Most start by telling their families, friends and then their colleagues. For Edmund John Philip Browne, however, the process was sudden and brutal.

Seven years ago, at the age of 59, Lord Browne was obliged to resign as the CEO of BP ( British Petroleum) when a tabloid published a story chronicling his affair with a male escort.

After a lifetime spent trying to hide his sexuality, Browne was suddenly the world’s most famous gay CEO. Browne has since moved on to embrace this new identity and become an advocate for gays and lesbians coming out in the workplace.

In his recently published book, The Glass Closet: Why coming out is good business, he weaves his own story with the stories of numerous gay executives he has met, to paint a picture of how tortured life can be for those in hiding.

In an exclusive telephonic interview with Corporate Dossier from London, The Baron Browne of Madingley talks about how MNCs help the gay cause, India’s growing reputation for intolerance and his boyfriend Nghi. Edited excerpts:

Why this book?

My purpose was to tell my own story, while providing gay people with role models, I also wanted it to be a letter to straight people so they might become our allies. When I started, I thought I may be trying to solve a problem that really doesn’t exist.

Now I realise the problem is bigger than anyone thought. Some people have actually written to tell me they have come out to their colleagues after reading the book. People are also posting their coming out stories on the book’s website,

In the book’s prologue, you unflatteringly club India with Uganda as a country where gay people are prosecuted. Is that the global perception?

The perception is that India has gone back a bit, surprising for such an advanced economy. India is seen as a country with an open mind. But then we hear its Supreme Court has criminalised homosexuality again after the High Court had decriminalised it.

The point I make in the prologue is that the struggles that gay people face in the West pale into insignificance compared to those faced by gay men and women in countries where homesexuality is still criminalised. There are 77 countries — one-third of the countries in the world — where being exposed as gay can lead to imprisonment or even death. Of these, 44 are former British colonies.

What role can MNCs like BP play in countries where homosexuality is illegal?

MNCs are in the business of nudging and influencing. An MNC might have occasion to raise the issue with a Head of State. But our main job is to make it safe for our own people to come out at work. Companies that are most committed to LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) diversity will not bend their policies even in challenging environments.

IBM, for instance, does not allow its non-discrimination policies to be adjusted in any of the 170 countries it operates, including those in Africa and Middle East. My book gives examples like Goldman Sachs and Bain & Co, which have included India in their global LGBT networks with great success. Bain’s annual LGBT conference has delegates from India, China, Dubai and it has had maximum impact in these countries.

Should Britain play a more active role in helping to repeal the penal code it thrust on its colonies? 

I do think so. There is an organisation called the Human Dignity Trust in London which is doing this. It should also be on the agenda of the British Government. Our politicians have gone quite a long way at home. I was in the House of Lords last year when they passed Equal Marriage Act, which recognises same-sex marriage.

Despite this progress, why are gay people in the West afraid to come out in the workplace? 

I was in Cambridge when the British antigay law was repealed. But the environment remained homophobic and anti-gay slurs like ‘poofter’ were common on campus. I was terrified of coming out. I’m a member of what some call the ‘lost generation’ who continued to lead a life of secrecy.

Even today, it’s estimated that 41 per cent of LGBT employees in the US remain closeted at work, as do 34 per cent in the UK. They fear damaging their career progression. They lack role models. There is no openly gay CEO is the Fortune 500 and they don’t see anyone in the top management who is out.

How would gay people coming out in the workplace be good for business? 

Living a double life saps people’s energy. It’s impossible to quantify the loss of productivity or creativity in dollars and cents, but many economists have examined the correlation between tolerance and economic performance. A study by Marcus Noland of Peterson Institute of International Economics finds that attitudes towards gay people correlate highly with a country’s ability to attract foreign investment.

Peter Sands, CEO of Standard Chartered sums it up when he says that being trapped in the closet is ‘miserable for individuals and bad for business. In a world where business success is all about unleashing people’s creative energy and imagination, it makes no sense to cripple such talent.’ My book has several stories of closeted people weighed down by their secret.

Was it hard to get such executives to talk to you for this book? 

It wasn’t easy. I was saddened by the anxiety displayed by closeted employees I met, many of whom are in their 20s. Their generation enjoys more freedom than any before, but these young men and women are paralysed by fear. Some didn’t want to communicate by email because it might leave a trail. Others refused to meet in public because they did not want to risk being seen with a gay person. In 30 years, there will still be people reluctant to come out.

What concrete steps can corporates take to promote LGBT inclusion? 

Enacting policies for LGBT people is a starting point. But there is a difference between the security that these policies are meant to provide and the comfort actually experienced by LGBT employees.

Prejudice will always exist and corporate leaders need to go a step further and establish cultures of inclusion codified in not just policies but in the thoughts and behavior of employees.

How did a closeted gay man rise to become the CEO of Britain’s largest company and remain there for 12 years? 

Psychologists say those with concealable stigmas are better at reading people and situations. Leading a double life fosters skills like adaptability, creativity and intuition. Having said that, hiding my sexuality made me very unhappy.

In 2002, I announced that the company would be specifically targeting gays and lesbians in its recruitment program and would offer equal benefits for partners in same sex relationships. But I remained careful not to be seen as gay.

A journalist recently placed me in a generation of closeted people who could see progress but not benefit from it. As CEO, I figured I couldn’t follow the lead of public figures or even employees of BP who were coming out. I didn’t want to undermine BP’s standing in conservative countries where we provided employment for tens of thousands of people.

On a personal level , I didn’t want to reveal that I’d been living a lie for so long. My process of coming out eventually happened in reverse. In an ideal world, I would have built up the confidence to tell my friends and colleagues. Then, advised by BP’s press relations team, I would have managed a public disclosure. Instead, the newspapers exposed me.

You were exposed in a very British way, with a tabloid paying your ex-boyfriend for his story. Would this have happened in France or Germany? 

It is a very UK thing and it would probably not have happened if I was French or German. Who knows? Newspapers sell by reporting sex and power stories involving high profile people.

(Browne had a three year relationship with a young Canadian named Jeff Chevalier, who moved in with him. The relationship fell apart and Chevalier eventually sold his story to The Daily Mail on Sunday for a substantial sum of money. The two met through a now defunct web-site, but Browne told his friends they had met running in Battersea Park. This is also what he told the High Court when he filed to get an injunction blocking the publication of the story. This would later cause serious problems).

You were friends with Vladimir Putin. What do you think of the recent anti-gay legislation in Russia? 

Putin isn’t friends with anybody. I met him frequently between 200 and 2007, but we never talked personal matters. He’s a pragmatic leader who seeks his voter’s approval. He’s justifying these laws on the grounds that the Russian birth rate is falling and the Russian family is on the decline. It’s more about political posturing than real disgust for gay people.

Russia’s gay minority is being used as a pawn in the pursuit of political power. History shows that minorities are used as scapegoats when things go badly for societies, whether it is Jews or gays.

Your mother was an Auschwitz survivor and played a major role in your life? 

My mother grew up in Romania and was sent to Auschwitz by the Nazis. She survived but the rest of her family did not. She witnessed the worst of human mature and was wary of trusting people. She believed showing any sign of weakness was bad.

My mother moved in with me in 1986, after my father passed away. She became an unpaid member of the company payroll, playing the role of hostess with aplomb at BP events and dinners. Thinking back, the fact that she was my companion at company events was probably a bit of a giveaway. Many people in BP guessed I was gay.

Tell us about your companion Nghi. 

Nghi wrote to me a month after I resigned from BP. He’s of Vietnamese-Chinese descent but grew up in Germany. He had followed the news coverage while travelling in New Zealand ahead of starting on a new job in an investment bank. He was then 32 years old and curious to know more about me. We met for drink on 1 June 2007 and we have been together ever since.




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