Most of America’s top corporations now have good — and often stellar — LGBT workplace policies. But what happens when those employees work from abroad?
In early 2014, the Ugandan parliament passed a bill that not only outlawed homosexual acts, but also compelled citizens to report suspected homosexual activity to the police. Dubbed the “kill the gays bill” in the Western media for its earlier death penalty provisions, the law was annulled due to a technicality, but LGBT Ugandans are bracing for another round of legal persecution.
Uganda is hardly the only perilous place to be LGBT. In 79 countries, same-sex relationships are considered illegal (or the law is vague), and in a few, homosexuality, homosexual acts or gender role non-conformance can be punishable by death. Only 66 countries provide some protection for LGBT persons in the workplace, and only 18 allow same-sex marriages. The plight of LGBT people in deeply homophobic countries has drawn attention in the past several years; along with Uganda, Russia, India, and Nigeria and other nations have instituted harsh new laws to criminalize same-sex relationships or prevent advocacy for equal rights.
Clean Yield Asset Management is an active member of an informal shareholder coalition that’s long advocated for LGBT workplace policies and protections. This work has been highly successful – so much so that it’s actually a stretch these days to find a company in our clients’ portfolios that hasn’t gotten with the program. This isn’t just a reflection of our high ESG (environmental, social and governance) standards; every company in the S&P 100 received a score greater than 80% in the most recent edition of the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which scores corporate LGBT workplace policies.
But we’ve been wondering for some time now: how well are these companies doing in implementing these policies in their overseas operations? Do progressive LGBT policies hit a wall at the border?
With this in mind, Clean Yield Asset Management and another twenty investors sent letters last fall to the S&P 100 companies* with the best domestic policies for their LGBT employees. The project was intended as one part awareness-raising campaign and one part fishing expedition to identify best practices already in place.
|Do your LGBT nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies extend to your employees abroad? If so, how is this communicated?Are equal benefits policies similarly extended, and how is this communicated?Do you recognize same-sex couples as family for purposes of global assignments and the accompanying assignation of benefits?Do you have policies in place to ensure the safety of internationally assigned LGBT employees and their partners?Do you provide resources to help employees navigate in the 168 countries that do not allow citizens the right to bring their same-sex partner into their country legally?
Have you ever communicated with any of these governments to support the repeal of these barriers?
What if any contingency plans are in place to protect employees overseas who are vulnerable to anti-LGBT harassment, intimidation. or violence, especially on the part of their governments?
Drum Roll, Please
With 34 total responses of varying detail, while we don’t claim to have a scientific sampling (see box below), the results do begin to shed some light on a subject characterized by a paucity of information.
The immediate good news from our survey is that nearly 90% of respondents told us that their nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies applied to overseas workers. These are most popularly communicated via the company’s intranet, followed by its internal code of conduct, global diversity policy, trainings, and employee orientation.
With spousal benefits, things are more complicated. At least two-thirds (66%) of the respondents offer equal benefits to their foreign employees and expats where it is legal. Interestingly, the barrier that emerges around the extension of benefits originates not from insurance law or a corporate unwillingness to offend foreign sensitivities, but from foreign law. If a country doesn’t recognize the employee’s same-sex domestic partner or spouse as family for the purpose of immigration or temporary stays, then the benefits aren’t permitted. (Opposite-sex unmarried couples can be up a creek, too.) But virtually none of the companies in our survey sample were willing to call upon foreign governments to remove these barriers, even though 80% indicated that they themselves recognize LGBT couples as family for the purpose of international assignments. (More on this below).
About one-third said they provide resources to help employees navigate bringing their partners abroad with them. Best practices included legal support, assignment allowances, and support for a partner’s travel application documents. Several companies told us that they have helped employees’ partners explore workarounds to enter countries (e.g., through work or tourist visas), but their attempts are not always successful.
In terms of protecting employee and partner safety, the response rate was similarly disappointing (about one-third failed to provide information), but the best practices that emerged were not. These include security alerts, plans to extract or evacuate employees, existence of global security and investigative services, cultural and legal orientation, security awareness training, oversight of travel and lodging arrangements, and hotlines. Most companies emphasized that these covered all employees, but several noted that information pertaining to LGBT-specific threats were offered.
|Thirty-four (34) companies answered our inquiry, a response rate of just over half, in varying detail. Some gave us additional information in conversation.They ranged across industry sectors, with consumer goods companies representing the largest group (9 companies, or about one-quarter of the respondents).Twenty-six percent (26%) of the original batch of letter recipients did not respond at all; 18% indicated they would, but had not by our deadline.How well the respondents answered our questions varied greatly. About 45% (or 15 companies) sent either excellent or very good responses. We judged about a quarter of the responses to be “good,” and the remaining 30% to be “fair” or “poor.”|
Kudos to the national retailer who provides employees with a detailed, annual country-risk intelligence report for LGBT travel safety. It outlines each country’s legal environment, local resources, cultural attitudes toward the LGBT community, and current headlines related to the LGBT community. For example, the profile for Bahrain warns:
LGBT-related activities are not socially accepted and cross-dressing can be grounds for fines or imprisonment. There are reports that Bahrain will be ‘screening’ for LGBT travelers at the airport via x-ray scans and ‘medical tests.’
(Note to Bahrain: the gay gene is yet undiscovered, and is unlikely to set off x-ray machines.)
Another honorable mention goes to the best-articulated “we’ve got your back” protocol in case of a safety emergency:
[We are] not aware of any instance where any colleague or partner has been targeted or victimized by government harassment, intimidation or violence due to LGBT status, association, or views. As with all colleagues, should such an incident take place, and the colleague raises this to the attention of Global Security, [we] would immediately take steps to ensure the protection and safety of the affected colleague and partner. These steps would include relaying security guidance from our [Global Security operations center], via email or phone, or from a regionally located Global Security point-of-contact. Global Security would also collaborate with HR, Legal and the local management team to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the LGBT colleague and partner.
The Diplomatic Ask That Dare Not Speak Its Name
A few months prior to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Clean Yield Asset Management organized a letter from 20 institutional investors to the 10 top-tier corporate sponsors of the Olympics. In our letter, we urged them, among other things, to call upon Russia’s leaders to rescind the country’s latest round of anti-LGBT laws. At that time, these companies were getting slammed on social media for their association with the Games. None who responded to our letter were willing to publicly call for the repeal of the laws, which penalize actions construed as “endorsing” homosexuality.
This refusal to directly lobby governments was mirrored by exactly half of the companies who responded to our current survey.
With one exception. AT&T reminded us of its February 2014 statement reading, “Russia’s law is harmful to LGBT individuals and families, and it’s harmful to a diverse society.” With that simple sentence, AT&T distinguished itself from its peer group by leaps and bounds. (In a parallel universe, rumored AT&T employee Ernestine Tomlinson is irritating yet another ungrateful customer by bragging about it.)
But more typical was the position that corporations have no obligation to speak out on this matter. One brand-name firm asserted flatly that it doesn’t lobby governments to stop violating freedom of expression, religious association or anything else. “Our role is to ensure that we embrace human rights practices in our own workplaces.” But as Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said to a group of corporate leaders this winter at a State Department reception, “Corporations regularly engage with governments to express their concerns about what is good for business, and what isn’t; discussing regressive laws or discriminatory government policies is part of that conversation.” Doing so is one way for businesses to comply with the spirit of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Off the record, some companies explained to us that several factors inhibit them from speaking out as clearly as AT&T. First, public criticism (“naming and shaming”) could jeopardize their ability to do business. Second, while such activities might momentarily satisfy critics and activists, they explained, they can also backfire by reinforcing the notion held by some that LGBT rights are a decadent concept being forced upon traditional cultures by the West. The best course, they advised, is to lead by example, by supporting nongovernmental organizations pressing for global LGBT equality, and by strengthening their own transnational LGBT employee resource groups. Companies such as Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and Procter & Gamble are doing a strong job in these areas.
With all due respect to diplomatic tradition, however, and the risks that companies might face if they go out on a limb, we’re not entirely convinced that others can’t be as straightforward as AT&T. It’s worth remembering that back in the mid-1980s, some of the largest companies in the U.S. came together and announced their intention to lobby the South African government to end apartheid.
As for the risk of backlash, in many countries, LGBT communities are so persecuted that they have no place to go but up. We can’t prescribe how corporations should act in every unique situation – on-the-ground, grassroots LGBT groups should be companies’ first advisors — but some flexibility is surely preferable to a blanket policy to never condemn governments in the face of obvious human rights abuses, whether for LGBT persons or other at-risk groups or individuals.
South Africa, by the way, was one of the earliest countries to allow same-sex marriage after the fall of apartheid. History is on our side, but it needs a push.
*Companies who were sent letters: Aetna, AIG, Allstate, Altria, Amazon, American Express, Apple, AT&T, Bank of America, Baxter, Best Buy, Boeing, Cardinal Health, Caterpillar, Chevron, Cisco, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Costco, CVS Health, Delta, Dow Chemical, DuPont, EMC, FedEx, Ford Motor, General Electric, General Dynamics, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Google, Hewlett Packard, Home Depot, Honeywell, Humana, IBM, Ingram Micro, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, JP Morgan Chase, Lockheed Martin, McDonalds, McKesson, Merck, MetLife, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Oracle, Pepsi, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Prudential, Sears, Sprint, Starbucks, Target, Texas Instruments, United Contintental, United HealthGroup, United Technologies, United Parcel Service, Verizon, Visa, Walgreen, Walt Disney, Walmart, Wellpoint and Wells Fargo.
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Additional ResourcesAT&T, Citigroup, Council for Global Equality, Goldman Sachs, International Panel on Climate Change, LGBT, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Sochi Olympics, Target, UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights