By Barbara Frankel
As quickly as the world is changing—especially when it comes to equal rights for same-gender couples—so are corporations. More than a dozen corporations strongly urged Governor Jan Brewer to veto the repugnant bill the Arizona State Legislature approved, which would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT people based on “religious freedom.”
Those companies included AT&T, Marriott International, Aetna and Verizon Communications, Nos. 13, 16, 19 and 47, respectively, in The 2013 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity.
A decade ago, instances such as General Motors leading the way in the University of Michigan affirmative action case, Kaiser Permanente actively fighting for African-American equality, or Wells Fargo publicly supporting the LGBT community were remarkable because they were so unusual. Most Fortune 500 corporations preferred the cautious “we support everybody’s rights but don’t get involved in political [really controversial] issues” approach.
Why do so many companies speak out now? Why have other companies, like Eli Lilly and Company and WellPoint in Indiana, Nos. 35 and 40 in the DiversityInc Top 50, been pushing for same-gender equality in their states? Why did companies like MassMutual fight last year to end the federal Defense of Marriage Act?
Social Media and Values
Grace Figueredo, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Aetna, believes the onslaught of same-gender legal decisions has made it simpler for companies to advocate for LGBT equality. And technology and social media mean corporations’ branding and reputations are quickly formed “in the court of public opinion.”
But she also believes it’s about the values and messaging from the top leadership.
Aetna Chairman, CEO and President Mark Bertolini is a strong LGBT ally—he was the executive sponsor of the company’s LGBT employee resource group for more than a decade and was the first straight ally on the board of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
Bertolini heard about the Arizona law through the chamber and wanted Aetna to take a stand, Figueredo says. Aetna has 3,100 employees in Arizona, but she says the decision was really a reflection of Aetna’s four core values: integrity, excellence, inspiration and caring.
“Our view is that our response in this case hits on all of these—integrity is being your true self and taking ownership, excellence is about bringing our collective best and credibility, inspiration is about lifting each other up, and caring is demonstrating respect, values and alignment,” she says.
Another company whose CEO has continued to demonstrate strong values of inclusivity is AT&T. Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson was a member of the board of the Boy Scouts of America who helped end the ban on gay Scoutmasters. Stephenson and AT&T also spoke out against Russia’s anti-LGBT laws during the Olympics in Sochi.
Jerry Fuentes, President of AT&T Arizona and New Mexico, noted in a statement after Brewer vetoed the law: “As one of Arizona’s largest employers and retailers, AT&T applauds Governor Brewer for her veto of SB1062. With the stroke of her pen, Governor Brewer protected the ‘open for business’ motto that defines Arizona across the nation and avoided opening a door that could have led to discrimination. AT&T strongly supports equality globally, and we condemn discrimination and harassment against anyone. That’s why AT&T stands with many other Arizona companies, faith leaders and business groups, and commends Governor Brewer for her thoughtful decision.”
Inclusivity Helps Market Share
Another corporation that fought against the Arizona law was Marriott, which has 85 hotels and nearly 7,000 employees in Arizona.
In a letter to Governor Brewer signed by Steve Hart, Area Vice President, Arizona, and Thomas J. Maloney, Director, Government Affairs, the company clearly linked values of inclusion to business success.
“We operate in an extremely competitive marketplace for potential travelers and rely heavily on public perceptions of our state as an attractive, welcoming destination. … This legislation has the potential to subject our state to travel boycotts by both individual leisure travelers and groups looking to hold meetings here. … At Marriott, we have worked hard to build an environment where every guest and employee feels welcome, safe and respected when they enter one of our hotels. … We need state law to reflect these values of inclusion,” they stated.
Andrés Irlando, President, Southwest Region, Verizon Wireless, said the decision to ask Brewer to veto the bill was clear to Verizon, which also has fought for the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act and lobbied against Proposition 8 (which banned same-gender marriage) in California.
“Standing for diversity and inclusion and against discrimination is essential to who we are as a company.” Irlando says. “Our credo, the document which captures our core corporate values, embodies these principals—it urges us to respect one another and embrace diversity, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s good business.”
Aetna’s Figueredo notes that the battle—and the need for corporate support—is far from over.
“You can be fired or not hired based on sexual orientation in 29 of our states and fired or not hired based on gender identity in 33 of our states. That’s why businesses are taking a more active stance,” she says.