Here’s how companies can encourage a culture of openness
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Over the course of my career at BP, from trainee to chief executive, I was frequently asked whether I had a girlfriend or whether I was married. People assumed that I was a bachelor who had not yet met the right woman. It was a fair assumption, for an obvious reason: Most people are straight. But for those who remain in the closet, the assumption of heterosexuality can be highly damaging. It reinforces their feeling that being gay is something out of the ordinary, something that would put them at a disadvantage in their personal and professional lives, and something that is probably best kept hidden.
The assumption of heterosexuality is one of the reasons that many people in business and in other sectors continue to lead hidden lives. I have spent the past 18 months conducting interviews for my book, The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business, about the risks and rewards of coming out in business. I encountered men and women who, despite living in an age of diversity targets, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender corporate networks and equal marriage, are still afraid of the consequences of coming out. Young executives in their 20’s should be free of the fears that plagued me for over 40 years, but the evidence suggests that many of them are not.
Through four decades at BP, I kept my private life separate from my business life. As a young professional in the oil industry, my career was going in the right direction, and I saw absolutely no purpose in coming out. The corporate ladder was slippery enough on its own, without complicating things by throwing oil on the rungs. By the time I was chief executive, I was worried that any disclosure would damage critical business relationships, particularly those in the Middle East. In countries where homosexuality is illegal, my public profile probably would have protected me, but my sexuality could have had unknown and unlimited consequences on BP’s businesses.