It’s a rare privilege to listen to someone, who has experienced great discrimination in the workplace, but has nonetheless achieved a highly successful career. Lord Browne of Madingley, former Chief executive of BP, this week gave at consultancy Arup in London, an impassioned speech , which was partly about his won experiences and partly about diversity at work more generally.

Of his own experience, he described the pressures on him as a gay man not to reveal his sexuality, in case it affected his career negatively. It was a picture of constant vigilance and choosing vocabulary that would not raise the delicate issue that neither he nor other people wanted to address. Eventually, he had no choice but to “out” himself, but by then he was already at the helm of one of the world’s largest companies.

Hardly surprising then, that he has become a champion of diversity and an acute observer of the engines of discrimination.  One comment particularly resonated with me: that the Boards and top teams of organizations had a responsibility “not to do anything that excludes people”.  For me, this turns so much of the diversity debate on its head. Most diversity programmes aim at promoting inclusion, but that is not the same as preventing exclusion, which requires greater vigilance and action before the event. If company culture, HR policies and management frameworks were all overhauled on the basis of “Who might this cause to be excluded?”, how different might the diversity picture be?

One of the questions from the audience concerned what had changed in him, as a result of his experiences. Again, I found his response to be profound. It was simply “I categorize people less.” How much fairer might our workplaces be, if more leaders learned to do just that?

© David Clutterbuck 2012

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