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Out in the world: LGBT global mobility at work

Multinational firms focus on global LGBT inclusion

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Two womenRecognizing that equality builds business, Corporate America has led the way in fostering LGBT diversity and inclusion in the workplace. But while U.S. companies understand that LGBT inclusivity can unlock business performance and boost growth in the global marketplace, the same cannot be said of other countries.

LGBT workers are overwhelmingly still closeted at work in certain countries including Hong Kong (75%), Russia (80%) and Singapore (72%). Those in gay-friendly countries like the U.S., the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil mostly report working for companies with inclusive policies, whereas only a third say the same in Hong Kong and Turkey, and a quarter in Russia and Singapore.

For a variety of reasons, companies supporting LGBT rights are better places to work. Highly skilled candidates are more likely to accept jobs from them, customers indicate they are more likely to purchase products from them, and they tend to be more innovative.

However, despite a multinational’s desire to consistently apply its commitment to LGBT equality in whatever country they do business, doing so is not always in their control, a reality that poses significant concerns for employer and employee alike.

Out in the world stats

LGBT employees of multinational companies considering assignments in other countries that are not LGBT-friendly have good reason to be concerned. Working in a foreign country with a less than friendly approach to LGBT workers can result in legalized harassment, imprisonment or worse.

While over 90% of Fortune 500 corporations promote policies favoring rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, 75 countries still consider homosexuality a crime with 10 of those, including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia able to impose the death penalty. It’s no wonder that some 64% of LGBT employees in 10 large countries, including Brazil, India and China hide their sexual identity in the workplace, according to research by the Center for Talent Innovation.

Recognizing the need for more progress, the U.N. Human Rights Office, in collaboration with the Institute for Human Rights and Business, developed “Five Standards of Conduct” to support the business community in tackling discrimination against LGBT people. These standards reflect the input of hundreds of companies across diverse sectors and have been adopted by companies like IKEA, Microsoft, Gap, Coca-Cola, Baker McKenzie, and BNP Paribas.

Multinationals leading the way Indeed, many multinational firms are leading the way in effecting change in countries with anti-LGBT cultures. Consider these examples:

  • HSBC lit up the sky literally by lighting its Hong Kong office in rainbow colors in support of the first business summit in Asia on LGBT rights.
  • Barclays joined other companies in ensuring the death penalty provision of Uganda’s proposed anti-homosexuality bill did not go into effect.
  • Global law firm giant Baker McKenzie has a partner in place in every office around the globe who is responsible for driving LGBT inclusion, diversity and anti-discrimination policies. The firm also performs pro bono work and leverages global resources to work for social and environmental change.
  • Microsoft visibly took a stand against India’s Section 377 of the country’s penal code, which criminalizes same-sex relationships.
  • Simmons & Simmons LLP, an international legal practice with 21 offices throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia, requires potential suppliers to answer specific questions about equality and diversity and submit a copy of the supplier’s diversity and inclusion policy. It also developed a sample questionnaire for auditing a company’s diversity policies and culture.
  • IBM supports its LGBT workforce in multiple ways including allowing gay employees to publicly identify themselves as LGBT in the personnel site and showcasing LGBT employees as role models in growth countries like Brazil, Greece, Israel, the Czech Republic, China, Japan, Mexico and India.
Scott Farber“The assumption is that we do a better job of providing diversity than other countries, but we have to appreciate that they see it differently. There’s a lot more education that needs to take place.”

Scott Farber, West Region Audit Practice Leader, Grant Thornton

Scott Farber, West Region Audit Practice Leader, suggested that multinational firms need to consider how they can best adapt to the culture of the local environment, including its approach to LGBT diversity and inclusion. “You’ve got to be careful that you’re not crossing the lines in those jurisdictions around what is acceptable,” he said.

He added, “The assumption is that we know more about diversity and we do a better job of providing diversity than other countries, but we have to appreciate that they see it differently. There is a benefit in diversity. If they understood the benefits of diversity, they would probably be doing it already. There’s a lot more education that needs to take place.”

Adopting three global diversity models What are pro-LGBT multinational firm options when conducting business in anti-LGBT countries? In the Center for Talent Innovation report, “Out in the World: Securing LGBT Rights in the Global Marketplace” authors Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of New York’s Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), and Kenji Yoshino, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University, suggest that global companies consider one of three key models: “When in Rome”, “Embassy” or “Advocate”.

The “When in Rome” model assumes companies will adhere to the norms and local laws of the jurisdiction. In order to preserve the safety of employees, firms may have no choice but to comply with the local law. In this case, companies should clearly communicate conditions of a particular country to employees and provide the opportunity to decline an assignment without incurring a penalty.

The “Embassy” model allows companies to enforce pro-LGBT policies within their own walls but does not opt to drive change in the broader community. A local office becomes a kind of embassy where the firm’s pro-LGBT guidelines apply including those associated with benefits, health coverage and supportive programs.

The “Advocate” model involves proactively seeking to effect change in the local environment. Companies can, in fact, use all three models simultaneously depending on the jurisdictions in which they are located.

Luciano Centanni“It’s critical that employers provide sufficient training and resources to become aware of political and social issues in the host country, to ensure the employee is fully aware of any potential challenges.”

Luciano Centanni, Director of International Business Center
Regardless of which model a firm chooses, preparing LGBT employees for the global environment in which they will work is critical. Multinational companies should prepare LGBT employees who are temporarily assigned to a global office for specific training or job function; participating in longer-term training where the employee may not need a work visa but will engage in training for several months or longer; relocated or permanently reassigned to a global location, or involved in an exchange program.

10 steps to prepare mobile LGBT employees Before offering an LGBT employee a global assignment, it’s critical that multinational firms ensure that their global mobility processes and procedures are in order. In its Safe Travels Guide, Stonewall, a UK-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality organization, suggests multinational companies address the following 10 questions:

  1. Do you train in-country line managers on LGBT topics?
  2. Do mobile LGBT employees have safe access to LGBT staff networks?
  3. Do you have mechanisms in place that allow LGBT employees to return home quickly in cases of emergency?
  4. Do you offer support to make sure LGBT employees can return home safely once the assignment ends?
  5. Are all mobility staff trained to support mobile LGBT staff?
  6. Do you provide all mobile staff with information on the situation and employer initiatives for LGBT people in the assignment country?
  7. Do you offer reasonable mobility support, taking into account the individual needs of LGBT staff and families?
  8. Do you develop personal risk strategies with mobile LGBT employees to keep them safe during the assignment?
  9. Do you offer career development alternatives if an LGBT employee declines the assignment?
  10. Do your global mobility policies
    — prohibit discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity?
    — ensure LGBT employees will not suffer a career penalty if they decline an assignment?
    — establish that international assignments won’t negatively impact healthcare for LGBT staff?

Luciano Centanni, Grant Thornton’s Director of International Business Center, stressed that regardless of where they operate, companies today should work to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion. “The organization, through its culture, should create an environment that any employee is comfortable working in any office location,” he said. “It is imperative that the company alert and prepare any employee who is planning for a secondment or transfer to a different location and country in terms of what they can expect. They need to be prepared to support them to ensure they will be comfortable in their new environment and successful on their assignment.”

Centanni knows from personal experience the importance of preparation. “Having been on an overseas assignment several years ago, I learned that while we often try to separate our personal lives (preferences) and professional life, it is important that we prepare employees for both, to professionally thrive in their new environment, but also to personally feel comfortable,” he explained. “To help employees adapt to their new environment, it is critical that employers provide them with sufficient training and resources to become aware of political and social issues and trends in the host country, to ensure the employee is fully aware of any potential challenges.”

Erica O’Malley, partner, Organizational Strategy, urged multinational firms to take stock of whether they want to conduct business in a country whose culture does not align with their values. “The organization must be really clear on its policies and must think through particular situations and other cultures in advance of placing anyone in an uncomfortable situation.” she said.

“Ultimately, if a company here feels so strongly that having LGBT diversity is important and makes their business successful, they’ll find a way to implement it as best as they can in another jurisdiction,” Farber suggested.

As multinationals continue to compete for talent and consumer loyalty, it will be increasingly important that they consistently apply their commitment to LGBT diversity and inclusion across borders. Doing so will require a deep understanding of social, political and legal issues in those countries in which they conduct business as well as clearly defined diversity and global mobility policies and procedures for the LGBT workforce.


Contacts Erica O’MalleyErica O’Malley
Partner, Organizational Strategy
T: +1 312 602 8786