Q&A: Former BP CEO John Browne on Getting Out of the Closet

Browne addressing an audience at the Royal Society of Arts in London Photograph by Oli Scarff/WPA Pool/Getty Images

In May 2007, when John Browne quit as chief executive officer of BP after failing to stop a tabloid from chronicling his affair with a male escort, he described his “sexuality as a personal matter, to be kept private.” Now the man who often took his mother to business functions until her death in 2000 is pushing for leaders to come out and speak out on lesbian, gay, and transgender rights.

Browne explains why in his new book, The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business. Here he tells Bloomberg Businessweek about what prompted his change of heart. The interview has been edited and condensed.

It feels like a few weeks since we talked about titanium and shale gas for your last book, Seven Elements that Changed the World. You now have another one?
The Glass Closet is very different. Part one is about me, the second is about other people I interviewed, and the third part is an open letter to CEOs. I kept it short and to the point.

Some might question your premise that coming out is good for business.
Studies show an inclusive environment can increase productivity up to 30 percent. When people can be themselves, they’re not using half their brain trying to figure out how to be something they’re not.

By that logic, you managed to transform BP into a global energy giant while using half your brain. Would you have done anything different if you’d been openly gay?
It would have extracted less of a toll. What happened to me at the end, of course, was the consequence of leading a hidden life.

I’m trying to picture the career path of a gay oilman back then. Would you have risen to the level of CEO?
It probably would have been almost the end of my career to have come out in the 1980s, and possibly the first half of the 1990s. In my last 10 years at BP, I’m not sure it would have made much difference. There is no openly gay CEO of an S&P 500 company right now, but there are some in senior positions, and I hope we see more. That’s why I also put up a website, glasscloset.org, to let people to share their stories.

A lot’s changed in the seven years since you left BP. You’ve got groups like Out on the Street and more same-sex marriage.
The lesson from Out on the Street is that leadership matters. It was Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs who set the tone from the top. That’s an essential prerequisite for getting anything done. You can’t create inclusion by delegating it to the HR department. For equal marriage, which I took on in the House of Lords, it became clear that equality has no conditions. The notion of being different but equal takes you back to the apartheid era. Equal status means equal treatment. It’s not true everywhere. The U.S. is a mixed bag. Other countries have gone backwards.

A number of them, such as Nigeria and Russia, are places where BP frequently operates.
A lot of people in the resources industry work in countries where it’s illegal or even punishable by death to be a homosexual. You have to be careful not to expose your staff to risk. At the same time, I’d argue it’s important to know who’s at risk—to protect them.

I was surprised to read that only a third of LGBT executives in the U.K. hide their sexuality at work while the percentage for Americans is closer to half. In Scotland, you grow up hearing “No Sex Please, We’re British.”
Indeed! Don’t forget these are self-reported statistics. In the U.S., the states may be united, but there’s a wide variation in attitudes. We’re a tiny island of just over 60 million people. There a much more unified approach.

What about the rest of Europe?
The Scandinavian countries are liberal but as you go south, it becomes harder. Some of it is practical: The financial meltdown means more people living with parents [and having] to conform to their views.

You still see cryptic labels like bachelor or asexual used as a sort of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” way to handle the issue.
It didn’t work for the army and it doesn’t work in corporate life. As one woman, a defense contractor, told me: “Imagine having to put away all your photographs, take off your wedding ring, not talk about your weekend, change the pronoun of your partner, and act as if that life is great. It’s not great.”

How does being an interviewer compare to being the interviewee?
It was very interesting. You have to listen to what people want to say, not what you want to hear. The advent of the iPhone recording mechanism is great. But this wasn’t journalism. We ran the comments by people. It was a safe place. Even then, a lot of the people we spoke to chose to stay anonymous.

What does that tell you?
That we have a long way to go.