Corporate Pride in a Fractured World

Everywhere I walked last month, I saw shops, stores, and buildings adorned with rainbow flags. During New York City’s Pride Parade, a seemingly endless procession of company-sponsored floats traversed the streets. The degree to which corporate support for LGBTQ equality has reached and the quickness with which this change has occurred are truly remarkable. Last week, 207 companies prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In the US, using one’s business as a platform to express support for LGBTQ rights is increasingly becoming the norm.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens

The necessity of this support for businesses to remain competitive is clear.  72% of LGBTI allies say they would rather work for a pro-LGBTI company, while 71% of LGBTI people and 82% of allies say they are more likely to buy from a pro-LGBTI company. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign rank businesses based on their LGBTI-friendliness, providing consumers with easy ways to judge companies’ performance.

In 2017, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights published the UN Standards of Conduct for Business on Tackling Discrimination against LGBTI people. Companies can sign onto these non-binding Standards to express their support for and commitment to five responsibilities:

  1. Respect the human rights of LGBTI people at all times.

  2. Eliminate discrimination in any part of their workplace or any stage of hiring, employment, or firing.

  3. Provide support and a welcoming environment for their employees. This support takes many forms, such as LBGTI employee resource groups, peer-mentoring programs, and bias training.

  4. Prevent other human rights violations in the marketplace. Companies should not be discriminatory in their business relationships and should use their leverage to prevent their suppliers and business partners from adopting discriminatory practices and facilitating human rights abuses.

  5. Act in the public sphere by working with local communities to affect change and support LGBTI rights.

The Standards outline the broad strokes of goals companies should seek to achieve, leaving the process of working out implementation to companies, civil society, and other stakeholders.

In January, six companies, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, founded the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality (PGLE), a collaborative initiative aimed at helping companies implement the Standards and support LGBTI rights across the world. BSR serves as the secretariat of this initiative. Much of my work this summer centers around supporting the Partnership as it creates a database of best practices. PGLE exists to help companies operationalize the Standards by learning from each other, local communities, and other stakeholders.

The challenges facing companies depend on where they are. The aforementioned support for equality is not felt around the world. 75 countries criminalize same-sex sexual conduct. 12 countries allow the death penalty for same-sex sexual conduct. Only 67 countries prohibit employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

Companies that operate in such vastly different political and cultural contexts need to be highly intentional in how they support their LGBTI employees and advocate for broader equality. A policy that helps the LGBTI community in one country could hurt them in another. The complexity of the challenge necessitate collaboration, which PGLE is well-positioned to facilitate.

Both domestically and internationally, LGBTI people still face profound discrimination and oppression. It is not enough for businesses to create basic corporate non-discrimination policies. Rather, they need to proactively support LGBTI rights both in the workplace and the larger community. As Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights put it, “If we are to achieve faster global progress towards equality for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and intersex people, businesses will not only have to meet their human rights responsibilities, they must become active agents of change.”

Noah McThenia, placed with Business for Social Responsibility, is a rising junior from Gainesville, Florida. He is majoring in Public Policy, with a minor in Classical Civilizations and a certificate in Ethics and Society. He is passionate about the use of public and private institutions to ensure universal enjoyment of human rights. He works with Kenan’s Citizenship Lab and the Duke Cyber Club.

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