Who you are outside of work is rarely ever relevant to how well you contribute to your company’s business objectives. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert relates that even in conservative Texas business professionals are learning to just not give a darn about their co-workers’ private lives.
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc., made a huge impact on my personal and professional life this week… by which, I mean that the company that he heads shipped my 27” Thunderbolt display. Now, for the first time since I started writing for Business Technology and Business Reporter, I can finally see a full-sized A4 page on my screen without having to squint until I get a splitting headache. I’m overjoyed with my new monitor to the point of giggling.
Mr. Cook also ‘came out’ in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek this week. That didn’t have any impact on my life at all. I think that’s absolutely how it should be. I hold the gentleman in the same regard today as I did before his public admission, and I have no plans to change my buying habits when it comes to his company’s products (in that, I still need to save up for years to pay for ‘em). I think Mr. Cook’s orientation is a non-issue, and that it has no bearing at all on his ability to do his job or on his moral fitness to lead. Again, that’s pretty much as it should be.
I realize and appreciate that the world at large doesn’t entirely share my opinion on the subject. It has, however, come a very long way towards making an employee’s orientation and gender identity to be non-issues in the workplace. We’re even evolving our general attitude about these ideas here in Texas, where changes in social attitudes tend to slightly lag the rest of the USA. It’s about time, too. When it comes to most other deeply personal issues (like, say, one’s religious preferences), we tend to leave one another alone out of a deep sense of respect for a person’s individuality.  You’re more likely to get harassed about your sports franchise affiliations than you are about your sexual orientation these days. People get that they don’t have to agree with you or approve of your personal life in order to work with you without drama.
It used to be worse around here. About fifteen years ago, I was part of a major consulting engagement that was trying to build a ‘Dot Com’ company out of nothing for the Oil & Gas industry. I was responsible for designing and building out all of the client company’s internal IT services – everything on the friendly side of the company firewall was mine, from the file servers to the company-branded mouse pads. I also had the opportunity to hire all of the IT staffers. Best part of the job, if you ask me.
The fellow that I hired to be our desktop support tech was a young fellow named Bob . I think that he was in his mid to late twenties. He was a short but fit gentleman, very technically adept, and never lacked for enthusiasm. He’s cheerfully dash from floor to floor of our office tower clearing up the stupidest of user errors and would never lose his smile. Bob was awesome.
Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure that I accidentally made Bob feel like he had to hide his personal identity from me. I’d noticed that he wore a wedding ring, so I made an off-hand comment while we were deploying new monitors to the developers’’ floor that he should bring his wife by the office some time so that she could get to know his co-workers. Bob tensed noticeably and then disappeared as soon as he could. At the time, I thought he was just leery of getting his personal life involved with his professional life, so I didn’t push the issue.
It wasn’t until I was leaving the Dot Com (a side-effect of quitting the consulting firm) that my network manager mentioned to me that he’d overheard my conversation with Bob and that I’d screwed up. The older, savvier boffin asked me why I’d ever thought that Bob was married. I pointed out the plain gold wedding band that Bob always wore around the office. The network manager shook his head and chided me for making an elementary mistake: Bob wore his wedding ring on his right hand, not his left.
I had no idea at the tie that some gay men wore rings on the right hand to mark their relationship. We didn’t have gay marriage anywhere in the USA back then, and I’d never seen the practice. I’d just assumed that Bob was Russian Orthodox, since I’d met some other Russians after the Berlin Wall fell and I’d learned about their custom of wearing their wedding rings on their right hand. I never thought to ask anything more about it, since a person’s religion was his own danged business and had nothing to do with work.
I appreciate the old Exchange guru taking time out to set me straight on the subject. When I asked Bob about his spouse, it really didn’t matter to me what gender his partner might be; I just wanted Bob to feel welcome in our department. I think I wound up expressing the exact opposite sentiment on accident. It happened a long time back, but I still feel pretty crappy about it.
Since then, I’ve had the honour to work with and to supervise a lot of folks who didn’t necessarily conform to the society’s majority norms, in pretty much all the common variations that you’d expect. A person’s personal life has never, in my experience, meant a damned thing when it came to their work performance: either a person has a strong moral character, a strong work ethic, and the courage of their convictions, or they don’t. Full stop.
I appreciate Mr. Cook’s willingness to expose himself to a bit of hostility in order to serve as a role model for other folks. As he said in his essay:
‘I don’t consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others. So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.’
On the balance, though, I think he’ll do more good in the world by continuing to act as the other kind of influential role model: that is, as the supervisor who treats all of his people fairly and justly, with dignity and respect. A decent leader has to live by those principles for all of his or her employees and co-workers, no matter what else he or she might believe. You love your people for who they are, and if you have a problem with some aspect of their life that doesn’t affect the workplace, then you keep your damned mouth shut and soldier on. There’s work to be done.
The misbehaving firewall sure as hell doesn’t give a fig about the religion, orientation, sports team affiliation, or handedness of the person with root access who’s driving the command line. The broken kit just wants to be fixed. That’s we have jobs. There ain’t no sense at all in needlessly overcomplicating things.
 Also, because darned near everyone is armed.
 As always, not his real name.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.