As the rainbow flags came down in New York City after the WorldPride and Stonewall 50 celebrations, and as flags go up for pride events in other parts of the world, it’s worth asking: where do we stand on global LGBT rights?
This year has offered a mixed bag. More jurisdictions, including Ecuador and Taiwan, have achieved marriage equality while others have stalled or regressed. Kenya’s High Court upheld a law punishing same-sex intercourse with up to 14 years in prison, and Chechnya renewed a wave of persecution and human rights abuses against LGBT people.
Across this inconsistent global landscape, multinational companies with pro-LGBT values face a challenge: How to advance LGBT inclusion when it conflicts with local law or culture. The NYU School of Law’s Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging team conducted interviews with 30 individuals from Dow, EY, and Microsoft to understand how three major global organizations approached this issue in a variety of countries, from Brazil to Japan to Saudi Arabia.
We learned how leaders in these companies move between different models for upholding pro-LGBT values — from simply following local norms to creating an inclusive environment for their own employees to advocating for change in the wider society. The interviewees showed that by cultivating internal pro-LGBT champions and acting with subtlety and creativity, businesses can promote LGBT inclusion — not just in locations where legal protections are robust and social acceptance is high but also, and perhaps especially, in the many countries where they are not.
Previous research by the Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging’s faculty director Kenji Yoshino, along with the Center for Talent Innovation, reveals that in anti-LGBT countries, global organizations tend to choose from, and move between, three models of engagement.
In the “When in Rome” model, companies adhere to local norms by creating exceptions to their pro-LGBT policies. They might, for example, avoid LGBT issues in diversity and inclusion programs and refrain from establishing an LGBT employee resource group (ERG) chapter. This approach is common in locations where LGBT people face significant legal or safety risks. The model allows companies to avoid potential backlash from local governments or entities but by definition does nothing to foster a sense of inclusion for LGBT employees.
In the “Embassy” model, companies create an inclusive workplace internally for their LGBT employees without seeking to change laws or social attitudes. For instance, they might adopt a non-discrimination policy, offer training on LGBT topics, and sponsor social activities for LGBT employees. This approach is common in more moderate locations where the legal or cultural climate is unwelcoming to LGBT people but not overtly hostile. The model enables companies to support LGBT talent, but it doesn’t address the conditions that lead to LGBT exclusion in the first place. When employees step outside the walls of the embassy, they continue to face discrimination.
In the “Advocate” model, businesses go beyond internal LGBT inclusion and strive to influence the local climate. This means engaging in activities such as lobbying the government, participating in Pride events, and supporting activists. The Advocate approach is common in moderate-to-friendly places — like when hundreds of companies lobbied for marriage equality in the United States — but it’s also possible in more challenging locations, like when businesses successfully lobbied for marriage equality in Taiwan or when Deutsche Bank boycotted Brunei-owned hotels after the country introduced anti-gay laws.
The Advocate model is not without risk: It can provoke governments and communities and upset current or potential customers. However, if a company wants to be a market leader on LGBT inclusion — to recruit and retain LGBT talent, to appeal to LGBT consumers and allies, and to help create vibrant inclusive economies — it should strive to become an Advocate globally.
The interviewees in our study represented businesses using all three models. Yet most of them had witnessed encouraging progression toward Advocacy over time. When we asked how they each moved the needle in their respective locations, they shared both the successes and the challenges. Based on that interview data, we suggest three actions to help companies move from When in Rome to Embassy and three additional actions to help them move from Embassy to Advocate.
Focus on the concept of allyship: By framing LGBT initiatives as “LGBT ally initiatives” organizations can leverage the straight and cisgender majority and build a coalition of pro-LGBT champions at all levels of the organization: the grassroots, local leadership, and global leadership. This can be wildly successful: In the first month that the EY Global Delivery Services business launched its LGBT ally network in India, it saw 4,000 of its 21,000 people sign up as allies. Allyship also benefits LGBT employees directly. It allows individuals in hostile locations who might want to stay closeted to be involved as “allies” and then come out only if and when they feel comfortable.
Raise awareness: In trying to implement pro-LGBT programs, our interviewees sometimes encountered pushback from colleagues who wanted a “don’t ask don’t tell” approach or did not understand why LGBT inclusion was important. Raising awareness helps overcome that opposition. Start with the basics: Dow Brazil offered “Diversity 101” education to introduce employees to foundational LGBT concepts and, in China, the company gave explanations of every word, such as “How do you define bisexual? How do you define queer?” Similarly, EY provides access to a “Trans and Gender Diversity Toolkit,” which includes education and resources on leading trans-inclusive practices.
In raising awareness, companies need to customize approaches to the local culture. One interviewee got minimal turnout in Singapore for a “lunch-and-learn sharing session” on LGBT rights; the format had worked well in other office locations but did not fit with Singaporean culture. To ensure that such initiatives are culturally relevant, involve local leaders in the planning process.
Use technology: Where permitted, send e-newsletters or intranet articles about LGBT initiatives to employees in tougher LGBT locations. Amplify LGBT content through social media. One interviewee noted that when EY launched a rainbow version of its logo, its dissemination through social media “has probably given us more visibility in many of those tough countries that we never thought we would have visibility in.”
Companies can also use technology for LGBT events to build comfort levels among participants. At Microsoft in India, employees attended an initial LGBT inclusion event primarily via an anonymous Skype call. Soon after, the company held another fireside chat, which one of our interviewees proudly noted had “more people in person in the room than on Skype, willing to ask questions fearlessly.”
Strengthen the Employee Resource Group. In most large organizations, the ERG is the primary vehicle for internal champions to advocate for LGBT inclusion. Boost its power by providing leadership development support to its leaders and connecting the group to the company’s broader diversity and inclusion strategy — including recruiting, community engagement, supplier diversity, and marketing. A Microsoft manager in the United Kingdom observed that one of his biggest challenges was finding people to maintain the ERG, which makes leadership succession planning critical.
Forge external coalitions. Join other companies and non-governmental organizations to create task forces, host LGBT inclusion events, and sign onto global LGBT frameworks, such as the UN Standards of Conduct for Business. One interviewee took it upon himself to bring 14 companies together at Dow’s offices in Turkey to hold a conference on LGBT inclusion and share best practices. Once forged, such coalitions can then engage in advocacy at the country level. Dow, EY, and Microsoft recently joined more than 200 businesses by signing onto a U.S. Supreme Court amicus brief to show support for protecting LGBT people from discrimination under existing federal civil rights law.
Engage in “Embassy-Advocacy.” Identify internal actions that drive toward the Advocate model without fully embracing it. For example, after Singapore prohibited foreign companies from funding the local LGBT “Pink Dot” festival, Dow hosted its own internal “Pink Dot Day.” Find small, symbolic ways to indicate support for LGBT rights, such as providing employees with Pride flags or pins or offering options to add inclusive language or even preferred pronouns to email signatures — an effort EY began rolling out in the U.S. last month. Such efforts allow people to “come out of the closet” as more proactive allies, while also making the company’s support for LGBT rights visible externally. In Hong Kong, some recent hires reported that they decided to join EY because the partner interviewing them was wearing a rainbow pin.
It’s not easy for multinational corporations to move the needle on global LGBT rights. Yet we need to move beyond the When in Rome and Embassy models to achieve the goal of true global inclusion and acceptance. Businesses have a tremendous opportunity to make positive change for their employees, communities, and economies.
This content was originally published here.