Corporate support for political legislation on social causes is nothing new. In fact, it's probably as old as politics itself. However, it's often a tricky proposition. Generally speaking, companies are hesitant to get actively involved in the political machinery of social causes unless the legislation being proposed directly affects them. And, even then, many are reluctant to speak up.
That's what makes two recent statements of support for GLBT political efforts remarkable. Neither was caused by pressure. Both make bold statements of support for controversial LGBT causes. And, both set high standards for others to follow.
The main reason that corporations are reluctant to get involved in social issues is that they are in business to make money and they don't want to offend either their customers or their employees by straying too far outside of that core mission. It's safer to sit on their hands than to get involved. This conundrum was well articulated by Google Co-founder and President Sergey Brin on Google's blog last week:
"Because our company has a great diversity of people and opinions -- Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, all religions and no religion, straight and gay -- we do not generally take a position on issues outside of our field, especially not social issues.
This trepidation is widespread so getting corporations to actively support social issues is a difficult, uphill fight. And, once gained, it is not always maintained.
The memory of Microsoft's debacle on HB1515 in 2005 is still fresh for many of us. The bill would have extended discrimination protections in Washington State to cover sexual orientation and Microsoft had long publicly supported it. Shortly before the vote, and after a meeting with evangelical pastor Ken Hutchinson who threatened a nationwide boycott they dropped their support for the bill. It caused a firestorm.
After much discussion, arm twisting, and internal and external pressure Microsoft re-changed it's mind again, supporting the bill. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, sent an email to all employees explaining their position:
"I've concluded that diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda."
When I served on HRC's Business Council we spent the better part of two years actively building a coalition of corporate support for ENDA. Companies told us unofficially that they supported the legislation, and in fact implemented those same provisions in their own workplaces. But when it came to active political support, and adding their names to the coalition, it crossed a line that they were not willing to cross.
That's what makes Google's statement from last week on Proposition 8 all the more remarkable, both in its bold content and in its rationale:
...it is the chilling and discriminatory effect of the proposition on many of our employees that brings Google to publicly oppose Proposition 8. While we respect the strongly-held beliefs that people have on both sides of this argument, we see this fundamentally as an issue of equality. We hope that California voters will vote no on Proposition 8 -- we should not eliminate anyone's fundamental rights, whatever their sexuality, to marry the person they love.
Wow. In all my years of activism I've never seen anything quite like that. It shows courage, leadership, vision, and is a model for other companies who feel similarly to follow. There is no mistaking the message. It is clear and to the point. And, it translates this issue into the broader concept of "equality" that is fundamentally at play here - something that the corporation is anxious to fully support.
American Airlines took a bold step on another piece of controversial legislation when they sent a letter to Congress this weekpublicly stating their support for a fully-inclusive ENDA that reflects their own corporate values.
American Airlines has long been recognized as a leader of LGBT workplace equality. They put their money where their mouth is and support LGBT events and causes. Their corporate Employee Resource Group, GLEAM, is well respected in GLBT corporate diversity circles. The have people who's specific job is to do outreach and sales specifically to the LGBT community, and their corporate supplier diversity program specifically seeks to engage LGBT-owned businesses. In terms of transgender policy, they were one of the first companies to establish corporate gender transition guidelines, and they proudly shared them on the internet. They are one of only 11 companies to achieve a perfect rating of 100 for all 7 years of the HRC Corporate Equality Index. All told, their history of broad support is unblemished and this letter continues that leadership:
"We are) proud to express our strong support of federal workplace non-discrimination legislation that would extend basic job protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. We are proud to have been the first major airline to implement same-sex domestic partner benefits, first to implement both sexual orientation and gender identity in our workplace non-discrimination policies, and first to have a recognized LGBT employee resource group - GLEAM.
Our endorsement of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is consistent with our longstanding Statement of Equal Opportunity ... The principles fostered by ENDA are consistent with our corporate principles in treating all employees with fairness and respect. On behalf of our more than 80,000 employees, we appreciate your consideration and encourage Congress to enact this important legislation.
The more that this happens, the bigger impact it can and will have. Corporations can speak in a loud voice if and when they choose to use it. They often have active lobbying efforts. They provide a significant amount of employment, tax base, and money to the places where they live. They've got a significant amount of clout that can't be underestimated.
It's refreshing to see this kind of corporate courage. We can only hope that other corporations will see the connection between their workplaces and broader Equality as clearly as Google and American Airlines have articulated here. That, indeed, would be the next frontier of corporate support for full Equality for all.