by Kevin Jones | On April 30th, I will have the privilege of moderating one of the Equality Forum’s afternoon panels in Philadelphia. The topic for discussion is “Diversity in the Global Workplace”, providing me with a good opportunity to explore one of my favorite themes – diversity and inclusion as corporate social responsibility – in an international context.
Within social justice communities, activists do not regularly view large corporations favorably or as partners in creating positive social change. That is not hard to understand — in many cases the prime motivation for corporate action (creating shareholder wealth) often seems to be in direct opposition to social justice goals, especially when those actions reflect short term returns as a priority. Nevertheless, the influence that corporations have on societies is monumental, whether supporting higher education or chasing cheap labor, conserving important resources or contaminating local environments, funding significant charitable activities or financing the campaigns of ultra-conservative political candidates. Our challenge is to help corporations be intentional in making choices that are positive for society (and, of course, to agree with our definition of what “positive for society” means).
At Out & Equal, I get to work with a growing number of multinational corporations who have made — and are making — positive change for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community by adopting policies and practices that are increasingly inclusive. It is great to see. Literally millions of employees in this country now work for companies where LGBT employees enjoy the benefits of employment at a level that continues to approach full equality with that of their colleagues. The steps taken by those companies are changing our society for the better. But, of course, much more remains to be done. And most corporations operating in the US and internationally could be doing more.
Related to my upcoming panel discussion, I see opportunities for true leadership by corporate America on two specific fronts: accelerating active support for their LGBT employees outside the US, and expanding their commitment to LGBT equality beyond their internal policies in general.
The work to support LGBT employees outside the US is gaining increased attention with many corporations who want to extend their global diversity strategies to cover their global workforce. Naturally, the challenges are specific to the country or regions in question. The dialogue in western Europe is fairly advanced; companies are less concerned about getting the right policies in place (since many legislative protections generally exist) and focusing more on ways to build cultures that reflect truly those policies. The situation in some central and eastern Europe countries is more challenging (note the new Hungarian constitution). In key markets in some other parts of the world – India, for example — companies are just recently considering how to implement LGBT inclusive practices in the face of less welcoming laws and cultures. Companies like IBM, Cisco and Goldman Sachs are among a small but growing number of corporations showing true leadership in this arena.
Beyond making their global workplaces inclusive, most corporations could be doing more in support of their LGBT employees outside the workplace. Discrimination faced by the LGBT community is a business issue, impacting employees and employees’ families (and therefore employers) directly and indirectly, even when that employer’s own internal business policies might be equitable. A number of corporations recognize the importance of a legal framework and culture that supports all employees. They provide visible support for LGBT- inclusive federal nondiscrimination legislation, equality in benefits, and civil marriage equality in the U.S. A number of leading companies, for example, are signing on to an amicus brief in the case before the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, citing the burdens that DOMA places on corporations doing business in the US.
But the number of corporations providing such support consistently as a part of their overall corporate responsibility remains relatively small. Fewer choose to direct their influence to LGBT equality issues outside the US. The opportunity for corporations to work for positive social change for the global lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is huge. I look forward to any light that the discussion in Philadelphia might shine on how to get more of our corporate partners to take advantage of the opportunity before them – and to take action.