The characters and events in Grey Matters are fictitious.
ISSUE: This week in Grey Matters – We look at the issue of “coming out” relative to the consequences. Specifically, does the CEO of a company have the right to publicly announce that he is gay even if it might affect his employees, corporate earnings and share price?
BACKGROUND: Paul is the CEO of Big Bass Sports. Big Bass is a medium-sized sports company based in Charlotte, North Carolina, with sixty-five stores across 11 Southern states. Big Bass Sports specializes in fishing and hunting, with 30% of their profits coming from gun sales.
When Paul was hired as CEO by Big Bass in 2014, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. In the past two years, Paul made significant changes at Big Bass. He re-focused the company on their core businesses and invested in new product lines, such as rhinestone-covered handguns.
Carla is a member of Big Bass’ board and was instrumental in the decision to hire Paul. She is a plaintiff’s lawyer and frequent donor to LGBT causes. She has known Paul since they were in grad school at Duke University and brags that she knew Paul was gay before he did.
After a full day of meetings, Paul was exhausted, but he asked Carla to meet him at the hotel bar.
“I don’t know how you have the energy for a drink,” Carla said as she slid into the booth across from Paul. She checked the time on her iPhone. “It’s almost midnight.”
Paul picked up the bottle of Dom Perignon, poured her a glass and refilled his own. “Drinking is the new sleeping.”
She chuckled and picked up the champagne flute. They clinked glasses.
“I guess you should be celebrating,” she said. “We approved a very attractive compensation package for you.”
“Well deserved, you might add.” Paul took a big swallow and felt light-headed. He wished that the board meeting were right now. He had all the confidence he needed.
“So what was so important that we couldn’t talk tomorrow?” Carla asked.
“I wanted to ask you on a date,” Paul replied.
“I’ve been your beard in the past. What’s the occasion?” she asked.
“The Fuqua Businessperson of the Year Award. It’s in two weeks.” Paul sat back in the booth. He thought he’d be excited to tell her the news, but he dreaded talking to the board and telling them what he had decided to do.
“Congratulations!” She held up her glass. “Lots to celebrate.”
Paul didn’t raise his glass. “There is one slight wrinkle,” he said.
“I plan to come out during my acceptance speech.”
Carla set her glass down on the table and stared at Paul. “Is this a joke?” She laughed. “It’s not a very funny one.”
“I’m serious,” Paul said, finished his glass of bubbly.
Carla gulped down the rest of her champagne and snatched the bottle from the ice bucket. “You’ve been in the closet your entire life. I think I’m the only person in North Carolina who knows you’re gay, and now you want to make an announcement?” She poured suds into her glass and waved the empty bottle at the server before turning it upside down into the bucket.
Paul reached across the booth and grabbed Carla’s hand in his. She pulled her hand away.
“Where is that waitress with the champagne?” she asked and wouldn’t look back at Paul until she had another full glass of bubbly.
“Carla, I’ve been in the closet all these years because I thought I needed to for my career, but now that I’m at the top, It’s time for me to step out of the closet.”
Carla pursed her lips and even her recent trip to Dr. Botox couldn’t paralyze her frown lines. “Now that you’ve gotten what you want, you don’t care about the consequences? How selfish”
“I’m not doing this for me,” Paul said. “Look at what’s going on in our state. “I need to speak out. Charlotte passes anti-discrimination ordinance, and the state legislature and governor call a special session to overturn the decision. Business leaders across the nation are talking about this. I feel like I need to weight in.”
“Look,” Carla said. “You’ve just at the point where the majority of the Board respects you. The company is finally in the black, and next month, you’re going to announce earnings and guidance that will probably double our stock price. You can’t risk all of that just to be one more voice against discrimination.”
Her words stung Paul, and he felt a pinch in his heart almost like the time he had a mild heart attack a few years ago.
“You’re my dearest friend,” he said and slouched back into the booth. “I wasn’t really asking you whether or not I should come out. I just wanted input on dealing with the board.”
“You’re not going to the board on this,” she said and drank the rest of her glass. The server came over to refill her champagne flute, but she waved her away. “You’re just starting to improve sales. Our press is all good. We can’t afford a boycott.”
“So you think that people who buy guns don’t support gay rights?”
“I’m saying why do we need to take the chance?”
“But I want to bring change to our state.”
“Who do you think you are?” Carla laughed. “The CEOs of PayPal and Apple can’t effect change on this issue. Why do you think you can?”
“Don’t you think that it’s not gonna change so long as people like me stay in the closet? What about the kid who comes into the store and wants his dad to buy him a Pink Lady BB air rifle as his first gun? What about that kid? I need to use my voice to help others.”
“You need to use your voice to promote the company and not some cause that may not be consistent with the values of our customers.”
“But I can make a difference,” Paul said.
“Can you?” she asked. “As much as I wish – and believe me I do – that our customers wouldn’t care whether their CEO was gay or straight, I worry that they might boycott. Paul, you can’t come out.”
“So what should I do?” Paul asked.
“Just give a boatload of money to the cause and let others do the dirty work.”
The basic question here is what are the consequences of Paul’s coming out publicly? Carla is worried that if Paul comes out it could have an impact on the company’s earnings and the stock price. Paul feels like he can do some good for the gay community by coming out.
I long for the day when coming out is the same as finding out someone is a “cat person” instead of a dog person. You don’t understand why someone would prefer cats when dogs are clearly better, and you might even judge that person a little bit. But it’s just one component of that person’s life, and you move on.
But in 2016, it’s still a big deal to come out. I wish that weren’t the case, but it is. It’s like throwing a bomb. Things blow up. There are consequences, even collateral damage. As the person coming out, it’s important to be there to pick up the pieces.
Let’s look at the potential consequences and who bears the brunt if Paul announces at the awards dinner that he is gay. First, the timing of his coming out is very bad. He’s in a position to have positive news to investors about the company, and this is not something that should be overshadowed by his personal decision to come out. He’s gotten to where he is by being in the closet. Now that he’s gotten what he wants, he is not considering the potential damage of his actions – Why? Because he won’t suffer the brunt of the harm.
I can empathize with Carla. Beyond my immediate family, I’m not out in my hometown in South Carolina. I don’t have a Facebook account with my birth name, I haven’t included my high school on my profile, and I don’t accept friend requests from people I went to high school with. My mom, dad, brother, nieces and nephews all know I’m gay and love my husband.
Once I asked my mom if her brothers and sisters knew I was gay, and she said to my surprise, “Absolutely not!” She has a very judge-y sister who already looks down on my mom because she’s divorced, so she’s never told them. I don’t understand how they don’t know. I’m not sure her explanation to them as to why I’m not married to a woman and procreating, but I don’t ask. My mom goes to a fundamentalist Southern Baptist church, and it would be unfair for me to be out in my hometown when I’m not there to deal with any of the consequences.
I’ve always been out at work since I started as an associate at a law firm twenty years ago. I’ve had to deal with the good and bad of that decision. But it’s not fair for me to come out in my hometown and expect my mother to bear the brunt of that decision.
Paul faces the same dilemma. As much as he might do a little good by coming out, there may be consequences, and he won’t be the one who suffers. If there’s a boycott of Big Bass Sports, the company may lose sales. If they lose sales, then they will need to cut costs by reducing employee hours or laying off employees. If earnings fall, then the stock price will be impacted. Paul’s decision to come out may affect employees and their families and shareholders.
If Paul had been open during his career, then he wouldn’t have this predicament. He was in the closet when it benefited him. He can’t come out now that OTHERS and not him will bear the consequences of that decision.
What’s your view on Paul’s decision? Do you agree with Carla? Or does Paul have a right to be open about his sexuality? How does your view of the potential consequences affect your decision?