Talking about Sexual Orientation in the Workplace

WARREN HEGGARTY then looks at the pros, cons and legalities of disclosing one’s sexual orientation in the workplace.


John Browne, a former CEO of the Oil Company BP, was forced to resign in 2007 when a former gay lover sold his story to a newspaper. Shortly afterwards, Walmart withdrew an offer for him to join that company’s board because the publicity might have harmed the company which is based in Arkansas, not a gay-friendly state. Although he feels that life has since become easier for LGBT people, Browne says he regrets the fact that he was not open enough about his orientation before the newspaper story revealed it in the worst possible light.

He feels that with his high profile, he might have been able to make it easier for other LGBT people had he ‘come out of the closet’ on his own terms. In any case, his book ‘The Glass Closet’ tells about the very real difficulty such disclosure would have engendered in the oil industry. In many oil rich countries of the Middle East, homosexuality is still considered a very serious crime. And in oil rich Russia, Putin’s regime has been targeting gays for years now. There are good things about disclosure (especially in the longer term) and sometimes there are bad things about it (especially in the shorter term).

Is there really still a ‘glass ceiling’ for LGBTI people in public life and in business? In politics, Senator Penny Wong and former Senator Bob Brown are examples that would seem to indicate otherwise. In 1999 issue of Who’s Who, former High Court Justice Michael Kirby publicly listed his male partner. Years ago, Kirby was attacked by a politician who claimed he had been mis-using a Commonwealth car to go cruising for sex -despite producing no evidence for this or any sort of wrong doing. Kirby showed real leadership by responding without anger to the baseless slur.

According to Dennis Altman, as at 2012 there were no openly gay CEOs on Fortune’s top 100 list of companies. However, a little further down the list we find QANTAS head Alan Joyce. He has been a controversial figure, constantly in the news since 2008, and although much of that news has been negative, it has concentrated on how he runs the business, not on his sexuality. Mind you, his Irish-ness is frequently made fun of.

It seems there will always be a section of society which is unaccepting or even hostile towards LGBT people, often because of religious beliefs. Says Altman “[t]here is persuasive research suggesting that depression, anxiety and substance abuse are more common among people who are homosexual or gender nonconformist. Several people, most notably the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, have tried to use these figures to suggest that the problem lies within homosexuality itself – which is to deny the known links between self-doubt, low esteem and social stigma and a tendency to self-abuse of various kinds.”

Disclosure has the power of normalising the thing disclosed, whether it be mental health issues or sexual orientation. It will show that the people feared by some are already living and working successfully among us and that there are no real grounds for that fear. We can’t force people on matters of conscience, but the best way to dispel prejudice is by our own positive example.


John Browne, ‘The Glass Closet: Why coming out is good for gays’ (2014) WH Allen

Reviewed by Glenda Korporaal in The Deal, July 2014

Dennis Altman, ‘Gay Rights and the glass ceiling’ from Inside Story, 29th of July, 2013

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