Lord Browne of Madingley was a guest at the DINNER BEYOND BUSINESS in Hamburg. He knows how difficult a coming out at the workplace could be from his own experiences. He is the former CEO of BP and Chairperson of L1 Energy and also the author of the book The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out is Good Business.
Ana-Cristina Grohnert, a board member of EY Germany and Talent Leader GSA, took advantage of this situation and interviewed Lord Browne with a couple of questions:
Ana-Cristina Grohnert: Lord Browne, why it is so important for companies to engage with LGBT equality and inclusion?
Lord Browne: Over my fifty years in business, I have learned that inclusion is perhaps the single most important aspect of leadership. If leaders can get inclusion right, then they stand to do better business.
LGBT inclusion is just one part of this, but it sets the tone throughout the organisation and sends a message to the outside world. And this has positive benefits for a business, both for its bottom line and recruitment.
Studies consistently show that the most inclusive companies stand to make more money than their competitors. In fact, on average the outperformance can be as high as twenty per cent over a decade.
And companies that can demonstrate clear action to achieve inclusion for LGBT people will attract more, and more diverse, talent. For example, when I was researching my book, The Glass Closet, we spoke to female students at university jobs fairs. They would ask about a company’s policies for LGBT inclusion, not because they themselves were LGBT, but because they knew that a company leading on LGBT inclusion was more likely to be advanced on gender equality too.
Ana-Cristina Grohnert: What are the top 3 activities a company should implement to support LGBT inclusion?
Lord Browne: In my view, companies need to focus on getting inclusion right at all times and on measuring their progress in this area.
Leaders need to set the tone from the top, making inclusion their highest priority and allocating their time accordingly. All employees need to take care to ensure that their actions are not perceived to be exclusive.
Companies should conduct surveys to measure how their employees view their efforts to achieve inclusion.
And they should address unconscious bias within the organisation. They should measure how it might be affecting initiatives to include LGBT people both within and outside the company and they should train all employees to recognise it and do something about it.
Ana-Cristina Grohnert: Do you see any differences in addressing LGBT issues in Germany compared to the UK?
Lord Browne: I think the most obvious difference between the two countries lies in the legal status of gay marriages. This has a direct impact on addressing LGBT issues more widely.
In the UK, the legalisation of gay marriage in 2013 sent out a strong message about the growing movement and shift in attitudes towards equality. Everyone, including businesses, has responded to that.
In Germany, the legal framework is less supportive. Great progress has been made, but while there remains inequality in the law, achieving acceptance of LGBT people and addressing the issues they face will be more difficult.
Ana-Cristina Grohnert: How important are LGBT networks within an organization for the advancement of LGBT inclusion?
Lord Browne: If inclusion needs to come from the top of an organisation, LGBT networks are essential for ensuring that the message spreads throughout the company.
Above all, they are the place for LGBT people to be able to use as a space to discuss issues affecting them. They should be a place where solutions are discussed, which should be fed back up to the top of the company for action.
The involvement of senior leadership, and straight allies, in an LGBT network is also critical. Without them, the network will have neither the influence, nor the reach within the company to achieve change. And without an external perspective, the network risks creating a bubble of LGBT discussion that actually does little to make any improvements to LGBT issues in the company.
Ana-Cristina Grohnert: The legal and regulatory environment for LGBT people across the globe can best be described as a patchwork, and varies from being affirmative to mute or restrictive. What do you think are the biggest challenges for global companies when it comes to LGBT inclusion in this context?
Lord Browne: Global companies face a range of challenges when operating in countries with different attitudes and laws regarding LGBT people.
First, companies have to ensure that all employees have the opportunity/right to travel for business while maintaining their safety in hostile countries. This means making sure they are aware of the risks and providing them with the right support.
Second, companies face the difficult task of making sure that their position on LGBT rights around the world is consistent. For some, this involves boycotting countries, and business opportunities, altogether.
For the companies that do choose to operate in such countries, understanding how best to ensure that LGBT issues are improved is a major challenge. Of course it depends on the context, but there are a range of options for each company to consider based on relations in the country, influence and the security of its employees.
Ana-Cristina Grohnert: What would you say to employees who are currently thinking about coming out in their professional life?
Lord Browne: Coming out can be terrifying in the moment. But as someone who came out in a very public way, I can tell you that doing so will force you to be honest, transparent and brave.
In the end, those qualities will serve you well, no matter how high you have already climbed or how far you still have to go. More often than not, the risk will be worth the reward.
Taking that one step will shatter the glass and reveal the true beauty of life. You will think bigger, aim higher and be twice the person you were in the closet.
Ana-Cristina Grohnert: Unfortunately LGBT people are often still perceived as a minority. Do you think minorities have to overachieve in business compared to their Non-LGBT colleagues?
Lord Browne: They are a minority. They are a relatively small proportion of the general population and workforce. Nevertheless, at least at the most progressive and inclusive companies, I don’t think that openly LGBT employees have to overachieve to succeed.
I think the biggest problem is still the fear of coming out at all. From research for my book, and conversation with young people entering the workforce, they are concerned that being out will harm their career prospects, so they decide to remain in the closet, or return to it having been out at university.
Until we can dispel this fear, and demonstrate LGBT role models in the most senior positions in companies, people will be unable to bring their whole selves to work, at a cost to themselves and their employers.
Ana-Cristina Grohnert: Lord Browne, thanks a lot for the interview.