To Advance LGBT Rights, Companies Must Think “Glocally”

tim cook apple

Tim Cook

When the Mail on Sunday outed Lord Browne ten years ago, he was forced to step down from BP in a matter of days. Yet when Tim Cook proactively decided to come out in a Businessweek interview in 2014, the global corporate community applauded.

The words used on both occasions couldn’t have been more different: Lord Browne spoke of “embarrassment and shock” for being outed. Tim Cook, on the other hand, said he was “proud to be gay,” adding: “I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me”.

When it comes to LGBT rights, this decade has seen a positive sea-change, with business constantly anticipating lawmakers. Think about it: today, U.S. federal law has no workplace protection for LGBT employees, yet 91% of Fortune 500 companies have introduced non-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation. 67% of them have gone further, and have voluntarily extended health and insurance benefits to all LGBT families.

Europe has also seen his fair share of progress. MI5, the UK’s national counter-intelligence agency, currently ranks as Stonewall’s Top Employer of the year: a remarkable achievement when you think that until the early 90s, LGBT people were altogether banned from working at the British intelligence services.

Despite this encouraging progress, a lot remains to be done. In more than half of the world’s countries, LGBT people aren’t protected against workplace discrimination. Same-sex relationships are still criminalised in more than 70 nations, and perhaps most disheartening of all, 50% of LGBT students in the U.S. and in the UK continue to suffer severe bullying at school. As a result, up to a third decide to drop out. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that 40 percent of homeless youth on the streets of major U.S. cities are indeed LGBT people.

The waste of human and economic potential is immense. A report by Out Now estimates the U.S. economy could add an extra $9 billion a year if companies improved their ability to retain LGBT talent through the implementation of inclusive policies. Countries where such policies do not exist are missing out: the World Bank estimates India is losing $32 billion a year in economic output precisely because of widespread discrimination against LGBT people.

On the other hand, companies openly championing LGBT rights are reaping the benefits. LGBT customers are among the most loyal: they reward companies who have got their back, even if this means spending more on their shopping basket. A big basket, if you consider that in the U.S. alone, the spending power of the LGBT community is calculated in the region of $800 billion a year.

Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz famously put his money where his mouth is when he told an anti-gay shareholder he was free to sell his stocks and invest somewhere else. The company successfully demonstrated it was in touch with current LGBT culture when it released a commercial featuring iconic drag queens Bianca del Rio and Adore Delano. The advert has now become an international YouTube hit.

Uber has also taken a leading role by prohibiting its drivers globally from discriminating against LGBT passengers, even if state laws might allow it in the countries where they operate. In the wake of the Orlando shootings, the company offered free rides to a number of selected LGBT landmark locations around the world and free transport to the families of the victims.

Sports and clothing companies are also embracing the trend. During Pride month, Adidas released a rainbow-flag makeover of its iconic Stan Smith trainer devoting a portion of the sales to an Oregon-based charity supporting homeless LGBT teens. And then of course, last year the NBA made headlines when it pulled its 2017 All Star Game from Charlotte due to the controversial HB2 law passed in March.

The numbers are clear: there is an economic case for LGBT inclusion, and it’s strong. Companies with strong LGBT policies tend to innovate the most, to have loyal employees, and to experience significantly less cases of discrimination lawsuits. In addition to that, they are also positively perceived by their customers. It’s a win-win.

But the inclusion journey does not happen overnight, and companies are seeking guidance. Where to start from, especially when operating in countries where same-sex relations are illegal? The answer is to think and act glocally: underscoring the business benefits of diversity locally, and adopting global policies that make the workplace safe, fair and accepting for all.

The first step in this direction is to openly assess whether LGBT employees are comfortable in disclosing their sexual orientation at work and in reporting homophobic bullying in the workplace. It is also important to have visible LGBT role models across the organisation. Allies are the next step: are there any senior managers within the organization openly championing and supporting LGBT-inclusive policies and employees? The role of allies is particularly powerful, because it drives the conversation from a ‘minority discourse’ to one of talent, performance and innovation.

In the words of the UN, the fight against homophobia is now, more than ever, a “development imperative”. By forging an internal culture of inclusion that transcends national policies yet is aware of them, companies have a tremendous opportunity to leverage their global influence to shape socio-economic progress.

Employees of international corporations should be able to feel reassured that regardless of the national context in which they live, when it comes to work, they will not  suffer discrimination because of who they choose to love and who they choose to be.

-Antonio Zappulla, Thomson Reuters Foundation

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