Imagine not being able to be yourself every day.
Those were the words that really struck me from Lord John Browne at the recent HR Directors Summit.
He wrote ‘The Glass Closet: why coming out is good business’. He calls the book his letter to straight CEOs. It tells his story. How he was taught by his mother’s example that if you were in a minority that this was a risk. That the majority could therefore hurt you. That keeping secrets was the better option. He hid his sexual orientation throughout his career, rising through the ranks at BP and eventually becoming CEO. How one day whilst on holiday he received a call to say that a Sunday newspaper was about to expose his private life, after a story was sold by a former partner. He resigned from his position to avoid dragging the company through a media storm. He admits to being heavily invested in his double life. Although he now wishes he had come out publically sooner, recognising that others may have been helped by him doing so, he admits, it simply did not occur to him at the time that it was possible. It was all about the secret.
We often talk about authentic leadership. About bringing our real selves to work. But that narrative often talks of the benefits this can bring to your leadership style, what it adds to the toolkit. Instead Lord Browne thinks about the converse. How the constant drag of secrets, compartmentalisation and pretence can impact upon productivity and effectiveness. The real cost to business. What hiding such a fundamental part of yourself really means for your wellbeing and happiness, the extent to which you can have meaningful relationships with your colleagues, the extent to which you can simply speak freely without watching your every word or worrying that you are going to somehow give yourself away.
Of course when it comes to secrets, it is not just sexual orientation that people feel they cannot share. I have over the years met many people who are hiding something at work because they fear the implications of honesty. Sometimes that fear is well placed and sometimes it is not. I have experience of people concealing disability. Mental health issues. Family problems. Criminal convictions. Personal problems. Big fat stuff that they hold inside themselves and carry on doing the day job regardless. Showing a public face whilst hiding a private self.
Lord Browne spoke of the people he had met whilst writing his book who lived with fear and with paranoia. That today, in 2015, with protections enshrined in law, did not feel that it was safe to come out in their workplaces.
My first instinctive reactions to this statement are sadness mixed with anger that this bad situation is some people’s every day reality. But after the emotion comes questions. Lord Browne says that the book is for straight CEOs. It should be for HR teams too. There is a point in the book where he interviews someone who works within a large organisation that has an established LGBT network that has executive support. But the interviewee (a banker) claims that it is only ‘for admin staff and HR’. He suggested that for some roles it was not the done thing to be seen there, in terms of their career.
So here are the questions that for me, the book poses to HR professionals.
At your place, how safe is it to be yourself? I mean really. Not pictures on the website, having a diversity policy and an inclusion programme safe. But really safe.
If we genuinely believe that authenticity is worth striving for, then how do we create the environments in which our employees feel that they can be just that? Beyond the initiative or project or programme. How do we allow people to simply be, just exactly who they are?
No answers, just questions.