CSR Looks Like This: Business Leadership and LGBT Equality

Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff took to Twitter on Thursday to express his outrage over Indiana's so-called "Religious Freedom Restoration Act." But his leadership goes beyond his company’s opposition to the law.
Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff took to Twitter on Thursday to express his outrage over Indiana’s so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” But his leadership goes beyond his company’s opposition to the law.

By Laura Clise

Despite the recent wave of historic progress regarding same-sex marriage equality, Republican-led state legislatures from Arizona, to Arkansas, to Indiana and beyond have been working to pass legislation that the Georgia Chamber of Commerce recently described as supporting a discriminatory business environment. As has been widely reported (including here on TriplePundit), Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff offered vocal opposition to Indiana’s anti-gay law. After being signed by the governor, the law legally allows businesses to cite their religious beliefs as the basis for denying service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) customers.

As the Human Rights Campaign reported earlier this year, a record number of Fortune 500 companies have policies that support LGBT equality. And companies have increasingly lent their influence to support public policy that reflects their commitment to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Earlier this month, 379 companies signed an amicus brief, urging the Supreme Court to strike down state bans on same-sex marriage, and many of the same companies have openly supported federal employment non-discrimination legislation.

Benioff’s leadership goes beyond his own company’s opposition to the Indiana law, before it was passed by the state legislature, and before Gov. Pence signed it. On Wednesday, March 26, Benioff tweeted, “Calling other tech CEOs and tech industry leaders to please take a stand,” and “Have you asked your company’s CEO how they are responding to the Indiana discrimination bill now?”

When Susan McPherson and I initially wrote about the business case for LGBT equality in 2012, we cited the reasons companies offered regarding their decisions to complement internal policies with external engagement that ranged from public policy, to sponsorship, to marketing. What we found was that companies increasingly recognize that LGBT equality represents a business issue as well as an opportunity to truly affirm a commitment to corporate values.

In the context of the current wave of discriminatory legislative efforts backed by social conservatives, equality-minded businesses have an important role to play — by standing up for the rights of their employees, customers and communities with consistent advocacy and action. Authentic leadership requires the alignment of both internal and external policies, as demonstrated by Salesforce.com, Levis Strauss, Starbucks, Nike, Dow Chemical and a growing number of companies (eventually even including Walmart, which weighed in late regarding Arkansas SB 202).

More specifically, companies need to examine what may be at stake when it comes to their positions regarding federal and local legislation that affects LGBT equality. And as companies like Coca-Cola and McDonalds learned in the lead-up to the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, corporate statements regarding international policies matter as well. The reality is that the bar for what constitutes authentic support for equality, and opposition to discrimination, continues to be raised. In other words, it isn’t enough for companies to support some pro-equality efforts and organizations while remaining silent as discriminatory legislation takes shape within their home states.

Regarding the announcement that Salesforce.com will pull back on its investment in Indiana, Benioff shared, “We can’t bring our customers or our employees into a situation where they might be discriminated against.” His comments have provoked other CEOs to publicly condemn the anti-LGBT legislation, including statements by Jeremy Stoppelman (CEO, Yelp) and Max Levchin (founder, PayPal, Slide, HVF, Affirm, Glow). And in the words of Indiana-based, Eli Lilly, “Simply put, we believe discriminatory legislation is bad for Indiana and for business.” These business leaders’ advocacy is being echoed by organizations like the NCAA and the NAACP.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is predicated on the belief that doing right by people and the planet is ultimately good for business. In the first quarter of 2015, we have seen LGBT equality make the official agenda at the World Economic Forum, and the U.N. Global Compact held its first LGBT-related webinar, entitled The Role of Business in Equality and Human Rights for the LGBT Community. The business case for LGBT equality is hitting the mainstream, and the CSR lens offers a useful mechanism for analyzing the business implications — which include innovation, workforce recruitment and retention, supply chain sustainability and market opportunity.

When businesses and business leaders take action based on core purpose and principles, this is what CSR looks like. This is what Allyship looks like. This is what leadership looks like.

Image credit: Flickr/Piyush Kumar

Laura Clise is a corporate sustainability leader, 2013 Aspen Institute First Mover Fellow and Athlete Ally board member. You can follow her on Twitter at @LauraClise.

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