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Should Companies Lead the LGBT Equality Revolution?

Ken Janssens

Last week, Nikki Haley, America's ambassador to the United Nations, issued a statement reaffirming U.S. commitment to non-discrimination and calling for accountability for Chechen authorities who, according to reports, have arbitrarily detained, tortured and killed gay men in concentration camps, thus evoking Nazi Germany's persecution of LGBT people.

Those shocking reports are a reminder of the complex and often dangerous landscape LGBT people face across the globe.

In 23 countries same-sex couples can get married, but in 76 countries we can be arrested just for being who we are.

Given this paradox of progress and backlash, it's more important than ever to consider the role business leaders can play to shift culture and advance LGBT equality around the world. New research shows how far we've come—though we still have much to do.

A new study, which included nearly 700 companies from 50 countries, found that 81 percent offer the same life, medical and retirement benefits to LGBT couples as they do for opposite-sex couples. Twenty-seven percent offer health benefits that include gender-affirming care.

In the U.S., more than 8 in 10 workers with spousal health benefits have access to same-sex spousal benefits.

These benefits are transformative. In the U.S., most people get their health insurance either through their jobs or family members, and LGBT people have long been cut out of these opportunities. Transgender people, in particular, have often been denied health coverage for necessary care.

But employee benefits are just one piece of a complex puzzle: Many companies also have internal policies which prohibit discrimination on the basis of an employee's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Most of those companies also aim to strengthen the communities in which they operate.

By showing public support for LGBT anti-discrimination legislation, they are merely seeking to extend to society as a whole the standard to which they hold their own employees.

Laws that prevent LGBT equality across many state and country borders impose a significant burden on these companies and harm their ability to attract and retain the best employees. That's why multinational firms must speak out for equal rights wherever they do business.

For companies that do business in many countries, there are often added legal and cultural challenges to workplace equality. After all, how can a worker in a country where being LGBT is highly stigmatized or even criminalized be "equal" with a colleague at that same company who lives in a country with marriage equality?

It's not surprising that multinationals have become important bridge-builders given their unique perspective on the global landscape.

Recent years have seen a remarkable "coming out" by multinational companies as supportive of equal rights around the globe, whether that's anti-discrimination legislation in the U.S. or Hong Kong or marriage equality in Australia or the United States.

Here at JPMorgan Chase, with local LGBT Employee Resource Group (or ERG) chapters in 15 countries, we hear from employees around the world. Just a few weeks ago, one of our international ERGs reached out: They wanted the company to publicly call on the local legislature to pass anti-discrimination legislation.

We considered many factors, including public support for the measure in the country, the impact on our employees there and the political landscape.

Ultimately, we were proud to show our support. These decisions are complex ones for businesses to make, but with the full support of our leaders and employees in the region we were able to speak out.

Business leaders know that embracing LGBT employees means being able to recruit and retain more top talent, attract investment and create business opportunities. When business leaders have worked hard to make their companies welcoming to LGBT people, they don't want to see that progress undermined when they do business in a country that projects hostility to those same communities.

We understand that being out at work and welcomed by your boss and co-workers is good for employee morale and the bottom line. As any senior executive can tell you, employees who feel comfortable and welcome at work are more likely to succeed in their careers and contribute to their team, company, or organization.

When companies fail to protect their LGBT employees against discrimination in the workplace, the consequences can be serious. Imagine what it would be like to go to work every day and hide who you are. Imagine not being able to put family photos on your desk, changing pronouns when you talk about your weekend, or living with the constant fear that you can't go about your daily life like other people.

There are economic consequences as well. When LGBT employees don't feel comfortable and welcome, they are not able to fully participate and thrive in their careers. When a company discriminates in hiring, retention or promotion, they sacrifice getting the best person for the job in favor of pointless discrimination.

We can and must do more. Many companies have created ERGs that foster community for LGBT employees and allies and advocate internally for workplace equality, an important first step. But we also need more engagement at the leadership level: Companies that want to deepen their commitment to equality should also create LGBT Executive Councils made up of senior executives who are out.

If your company doesn't have any out senior executives, it's a good time to ask why.

In addition, more companies should allow employees to self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender for the purposes of workforce analytics (known as Self ID) in as many countries as it's legal and safe to do so. Currently, 28 percent of companies have rolled out Self ID.

As we learned recently from the backlash over excluding LGBT people from the U.S. Census, LGBT people don't exist if we are not included in data collection. Like governments, companies need data to measure whether LGBT talent is being attracted, developed, promoted and retained.

Finally, companies can do more to embrace all the letters of the LGBT rainbow, including by increasing visibility of bisexual and transgender employees and ensuring that they are represented in ERGs and Executive Councils.

Welcoming LGBT employees into the workforce is one of the great business success stories of the last 20 years, and today, some of the most powerful and vocal advocates for LGBT equality in the world are multinational firms. Whatever may happen in domestic politics, business leaders are prepared to stay the course, continue to welcome LGBT people into the workplace, and support our LGBT employees and their loved ones around the globe.

Our world is stronger and more just when we treat all people equally under the law.

This piece was originally published in Newsweek, May 3rd 2017.

About the Authors:
Ken Janssens is managing director, deputy CIO for EMEA, J.P. Morgan, and a board member of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates.
Selisse Berry is the CEO and founder of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates.

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