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In 2017, the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey was launched to gauge citizens’ support for legalizing same-sex marriage. During the survey campaign, several companies also made their support known. Qantas was an early corporate voice for the “yes” vote — and received both accolades and the lion’s share of public ire for its efforts. Qantas’s openly gay CEO Alan Joyce was criticized by some government ministers and even assaulted by a protester while delivering an address at an event. (In the end, nearly two-thirds of citizens who took the survey were in favor, and the Australian Parliament made same-sex marriage legal in December 2017.)
Some company leaders still worry that engaging on LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) rights will invite similar kinds of criticism. Traditional wisdom suggests that addressing a still divisive subject may alienate those against same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ issues. The fear is that if enough customers, employees, or investors take offense, they could initiate boycotts, quit their jobs, or sell their shares, harming the company’s financial performance in the process.
Making things even more challenging, LGBTQ rights vary greatly from country to country. As of fall 2018, in 69 out of the 193 countries recognized by the U.N., including much of Africa and Asia, same-sex relationships are considered criminal.
Despite the risks, some global companies are making demonstrated efforts to support LGBTQ employees and issues. Major players are unabashedly out in their support for LGBTQ-friendly workplaces and laws. Google publicly commends its employee resource groups — grassroots communities — including Gayglers (which “informs programs and policies, so that Google remains a workplace that works for everyone”) and Trans at Google (which “seeks to ensure that the company’s products and policy stances are inclusive of all gender identities and expressions”). Microsoft’s “Pride” section of its website has videos of “people who inspire us” and suggestions for how individuals can support LGBTQ nonprofits financially.
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Other companies wonder how to engage. Those that approach LGBTQ issues thoughtfully can not only reduce the risks to the brand, sales, and profits, but also strengthen the company and impact public opinion. These issues can become a cornerstone in the effort embraced by many companies to become purpose-driven organizations making a societal difference in the world.
We view LGBTQ engagement as a progression involving three levels of engagement — a company’s policies, culture, and activism — with each level connected to a respective constituency. (See “Three Levels of LGBTQ Corporate Engagement,” where we detail what kinds of activities are found in each level and how companies should best approach those activities.)
Policies for LBGTQ employees. The most common form of LGBTQ engagement is simply outlining internal policies that specifically relate to LGBTQ employees. These policies include antidiscrimination rules and reporting procedures that ensure protections and equal opportunities within their workplaces. Although such policies are not currently feasible in every country, in most countries they will protect the company from legal risks.
Many company policies go beyond what is required by legal mandate. LGBTQ-supporting policies can include all-gender restrooms, clear parental leave policies that provide equal rights for LGBTQ employees, and gender-neutral language in manuals and other workplace materials. In 2018, 83% of the Fortune 500 companies had nondiscrimination policies that included gender identity, compared with 5% in 2003.
LGBTQ employees will surely appreciate working at a company where they do not have to face discrimination. Research has long shown that such forms of stress can lead employees to see the environment as hindering their personal and career growth, and it is unequivocal that employees who feel that they belong at work tend to be more attentive and productive. Prohibiting all forms of workplace discrimination can also improve employee commitment to the company and reduce turnover.
In implementing new policies, companies should align their activism with their business models as much as possible. Airbnb did this in 2017, linking its “Belong Everywhere” motto with the “Until We All Belong” Australian same-sex marriage campaign. In these ways, support for LGBTQ rights can be embedded in a company’s core operations and decisions.
Culture for all employees and customers. Some companies attempt to create a culture of inclusion by communicating corporate values around equality in general (like Salesforce’s statement on equality) and LGBTQ issues in particular. Ikea, for instance, declares on its website that “We support our LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender + all other sexual orientations and gender identities) coworkers’ right to be themselves” and that “Our aim is to create a fully inclusive work environment.” This level of engagement usually involves internal communications campaigns not just with employees but with customers and other stakeholders as well.
Organizational declarations are important because they move the conversation beyond the pronouncements of just the organizational leader, such as Qantas’s Joyce or other out leaders such as Apple CEO Tim Cook. Companies making public statements — what Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin calls being “vocal advocates for equality in the public square” — reinforce that these values are part of companies’ DNA and help to create workplaces in which all employees can feel safe and supported.
An inclusive culture can generate performance benefits for the company beyond serving the specific needs of LGBTQ employees. To the extent that a company successfully fosters a culture of inclusion, it can spill over to other employees: For example, a Salesforce survey of 1,500 business professionals found that among those who say their company fosters an inclusive culture, 64% say they’re empowered to perform their best work. In contrast, at companies where employees don’t feel like their company cares about creating an inclusive culture, only 20% are empowered to perform their best work. An inclusive culture can also spill over to customers, particularly those under 30 who broadly support gender equality. They may believe that the company can be trusted to treat them with respect, regardless of who they are, if the company is treating its employees with respect.
Employees and customers, however, want to see steady action over time. Some companies signal their alliance with the LGBTQ community by selling products that celebrate pride. Many of these products benefit their financial bottom line, such as the BeTrue shoe line by Nike. But this kind of commerce, or marketing campaigns only during Pride Month, can backfire if they are not followed up with action. Such “rainbow washing” may be perceived rightly as hypocritical.
Activism aimed at the general public. The third level of engagement moves beyond internal policies and organizational culture. It involves corporate political activism and CEO activism on LGBTQ rights, taking actions that use the company’s resources to advocate for social or political change. Such activism may be directed toward government officials or indirectly to the general public.
For example, in 2017, executives including the chairman and president of BP America, the CEO of Halliburton, the CEO of American Airlines, and the president of ExxonMobil Global Services Company signed letters to Texas governor Greg Abbott opposing the state’s so-called “bathroom bill” legislating which bathrooms transgender people must use.
Other actions supported the LGBTQ community in other ways. To celebrate Pride Month this year, dozens of companies, including Verizon, Budweiser, Absolut, and Disney, produced rainbow-colored products or packaging and then made donations from sales to LGBTQ advocacy groups. In June, Comcast NBCUniversal became the first corporate sponsor of an initiative to preserve important materials that document LGBTQ history.
For companies that choose to engage in this way, activism can marry goals of social or political impact with business performance. The rewards can be reaped in the form of heightened consumer loyalty or employee pride when working with customers and suppliers, each of which drive financial performance.
Engagement on LGBTQ-related issues is often spearheaded by a committed CEO, but it’s important to think organizationally. Support from top executives can be critical if a social or political campaign hits resistance, but activist companies need to have broad support from the whole organization and not just a heroic CEO — another reason why it is so important to have a culture of inclusion in place when embarking on LGBTQ activism.
The corporate sector is becoming increasingly outspoken on LGBTQ rights. Organizations that want to engage on LGBTQ issues have models to emulate: Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index has given nearly 600 major U.S. businesses a 100% rating on LGBTQ issues. As more companies join in, the pressure is building on others to state their positions as well.
Leaders who begin to step forward will need to do so with clarity and transparency. Those who lend their voices to building cultures of inclusion will need to take thoughtful approaches and demonstrate moral courage. As they move outward from internal policies to external activism, they should expect a corresponding increase in scrutiny and expectations from key stakeholders. But the returns on such an investment are potentially extraordinary. Not only can it drive employee satisfaction, consumer loyalty, and other performance drivers, but it can also have a lasting impact on the LGBTQ community and the wider public.