Jena McGregor, a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership blog, made some interesting observations this week about the controversy in Arizona and the ways corporate leaders all over the country are weighing in to the gay rights debate, the latest installment in America’s culture wars.
She wrote: “Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto Wednesday of Arizona’s controversial SB1062, which would have allowed businesses to decline service to customers on religious grounds, is likely to be touted by some as a sign of evolution in the Republican party. The bill, which many saw as discriminatory to gays and lesbians, was rejected by a conservative governor, the state’s Republican senators and three Republican state lawmakers who initially voted for it.
Yet the defeat of the bill in Arizona also revealed an evolution of sorts for Corporate America. Companies lined up against the legislation, with major corporations including American Airlines, Apple and Intel announcing their opposition. The NFL said it was following the situation closely, raising questions of whether it might pull the 2015 Super Bowl in Arizona if the bill became law. And dozens of local and national companies signed a letter to Gov. Brewer or made their own statements of opposition, citing the damage it would do to the local economy, their ability to seek the most talented workers, and tourism in the state.
“If passed into law, these proposals would cause significant harm to many people and will result in job losses,” read part of a statement from Delta Air Lines. “They would also violate Delta’s core values of mutual respect and dignity.”
So what has happened to inspire change in corporate policy, often stereotyped as the last bastions of conservative bottom-line culture? McGregor notes: “Obviously, the change in Corporate America mirrors the rapidly evolving shift in Americans’ attitudes toward gay rights. Business leaders don’t want to appear out of touch with their customers, a majority of whom now support same-sex marriage. And as a growing number of state judges strike down bans on gay marriage — including one in Texas on Wednesday — many companies surely sense that staying mum on gay-rights issues would not only hit their bottom lines, but would put them on the wrong side of history.”
She quotes Deena Fidas the director of the workplace equality program at Human Rights Campaign, who calls corporations “legislative and social change agents.” It seems that corporate lobbying and cultural shifts are shifting to mirror the change in our national culture towards more inclusive policies for outlying groups, including the GLBT community.
“Fidas says advocates now also include companies from a broader range of industries and geographic areas. “Corporate support is no longer a coastal phenomenon,” she says. “We’re seeing heartland and manufacturing companies making the case for business equality” far more often than they did five years ago.
In Indiana, for instance, Eli Lilly and Cummins made donations of $100,000 each to a campaign supporting the constitutionality of same-sex unions. In an interview with Bloomberg last month, Eli Lilly’s senior director of corporate responsibility, Robert Smith, said “it was important for us to lead. If we didn’t do it, who would?”
That question, ultimately, is the right one. Corporate leaders may have self-interested reasons for promoting gay rights. But as we saw in Arizona, they are also in a unique position to create bridges between political parties and to be voices not only for the rights of their own employees and customers, but for everyone.”
This is a great example of creative followership (the corporate support of cultural shifts and activist/governmental leadership) becoming cultural leadership. At a time of great change, it’s encouraging that preserving a healthy bottom line is related to creating new kinds of socially inclusive relationship — not out of a mistaken sense of fearful ‘political correctness,’ but out of a sense of people, living authentically, as resources that must not be wasted or devalued.