For global corporations, promoting lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and intersex (LGBTI) inclusion can sometimes seem a difficult balancing act. They must reconcile corporate accountability; pressures from employees and shareholders; business objectives and avoiding antagonising governments and customers in emerging markets with high levels of homophobia.
While it is now widely accepted that discrimination against LGBTI persons is a significant self-inflicted economic wound (watch UN Free and Equal video: The Price of Exclusion), relatively few global corporations have taken a stance on the issue. Two years ago, Jim Kim, the World Bank President wrote: “The bottom line is clear: Eliminating discrimination is not only the right thing to do; it’s also critical to ensure that we have sustained, balanced and inclusive economic growth in all societies.” Recent studies have indeed shown that anti-LGBTI laws get in the way of foreign direct investment (FDI), private sector development and LGBTI people’s entrepreneurialism. Other studies have provided estimates of the toll of discrimination against LGBTI people on economies (e.g. in Jamaica, India).
Paradoxically, some emerging economies that need to attract FDI and nurture private investments in order to tackle slowing growth rates and rising unemployment are actively seeking to restrict the rights of members of the LGBTI community and experience an explosion of anti-gay rhetoric. For example, Egypt has recently seen a wave of arrests for consensual same-sex sexual activity, while the Kyrgyz parliament is considering an “anti-gay propaganda bill” modelled on similar legislation adopted in Russia. There is a clear inconsistency when Tunisia holds an “Invest in Tunisia: Start-up Democracy” conference while a Tunisian court sentence a 22 year-old man to a year behind bars after an archaic anal exam purported to ‘prove’ that he had engaged in anal sex. Private investors do not attempt to reconcile these mixed messages; they just switch to a less erratic business environment.
Yet global companies still find it difficult to publicly call for social change. Google, as an example, made headlines in 2012 with its “Legalise Love” campaign which called for decriminalization of homosexuality and an end to homophobia worldwide. The campaign had ambitious goals as described at the time by Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, Google’s head of diversity and inclusion: “We want our employees who are gay or lesbian or transgender to have the same experience outside the office as they do in the office”. Yet by 2013, “legalize love” had to be scaled down.
The lesson here is that a single multinational cannot take a stance on human rights alone. In 2013, Virgin’s Richard Branson was similarly one of the few business leaders to take a public stance against Uganda’s “anti-homosexuality bill”. Branson wrote at the time, “I have been courted by various people and government officials to do business in Uganda. I was seriously considering it. However, the dreadful witch hunt against the gay community and lifetime sentences mean it would be against my conscience to support this country. I would urge other companies worldwide to follow suit. Uganda must reconsider or find it being ostracised by companies and tourists worldwide.” Other global corporations might have echoed these concerns if a coalition, such as Open for Business, had been in place at the time: Uganda is the leading recipient of FDI in East Africa particularly in the oil, gas and mining sectors.
In the anti-apartheid movement, the Sullivan Principles played a key role in putting pressure on South Africa by requiring that corporations ensure that all employees are treated equally and in an integrated environment, both in and outside the workplace. Private companies could adopt a robust code of conduct regarding discrimination against LGBTI people. The world’s largest companies have already signed on to voluntary principles on Security and Human Rights designed in 2000. This is why, at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2016, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein announced this his Office, together with the Institute for Business and Human Rights (IBHR) and UN and corporate partners would develop guidance for businesses on the steps that companies can and should take to tackle discrimination and other human rights violations against LGBTI and intersex people globally.
The Economist will be hosting a fascinating event on Thursday titled “Pride and Prejudice – the business and economic case for LGBT Diversity and Inclusion” with more than 200 leaders from the worlds of business, politics and society to address LGBTI business issues head-on and move the debate forward. It is time for global businesses to take the next step beyond inclusive workplaces and use their global influence to create inclusive societies, for LGBT and intersex people worldwide.