Companies doing business in countries with harsh anti-LGBT laws are among the top scorers in the Human Rights Campaign’s first ever corporate LGBT scorecard to consider international operations alongside domestic ones.
On Wednesday, HRC will launch its 14th annual Corporate Equality Index, which scores hundreds of companies on measures like health insurance coverage for transgender workers and employee benefits for employees’ same-sex partners. To highlight the new international measures, HRC President Chad Griffin is scheduled to travel to Mexico City on Thursday for a “global launch event” partly sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and including companies such as Dow, IBM, and American Express.
“Today, businesses no longer reserve basic workplace fairness for part of their workforce, but are instead making protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity consistent across their global operations,” Griffin writes in the introduction to the report. “This is not only a great step forward for the LGBT movement, but for the entire world.”
Only one area that employers were scored on this year actually applied to work overseas: whether the company has a nondiscrimination policy covering LGBT workers that applies throughout its global operations. Some of the companies that met this requirement have operations in countries that not only make same-sex relationships or wearing non-gender conforming clothing illegal, but actively seek out LGBT people for arrest, have extreme jail sentences or flogging as penalties, or criminalize support for LGBT rights.
In such countries, invoking a company’s nondiscrimination protections might require LGBT employees to out themselves to company officers in a way that could expose them to arrest or extortion. That could mean policies on paper have little effect on the ground, or might force companies into difficult confrontations with local governments.
The most striking examples may be the oil companies Shell and Chevron, both of which get perfect scores in this year's report. Both have extensive operations in Nigeria, which passed a law in early 2014 that made it a crime even to support LGBT rights or engage in public displays of affection with someone of the same sex, with punishments of up to 14 years in prison. Both companies also do business in Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is routinely punished by flogging and a school was recently fined $25,000 for being painted with rainbows — authorities reportedly described them as “emblems of homosexuality.”
Shell and Chevron did not answer questions on the record about the implementation of nondiscrimination policies in these places. But Deena Fidas, director of HRC’s Workplace Equality Program, said even if these policies don’t rapidly translate to a better situation for LGBT workers in hostile countries, they are an important starting point.
“Our team would be the first to admit … that policy doesn’t equal practice,” Fidas told BuzzFeed News. “This doesn’t mean that it’s sunshine and roses globally in terms of the LGBT worker, but we need to start with this first step.”
Support for LGBT policies has already brought at least one other company highly ranked in the index into conflict with governments where it operates.
In 2014, the investment bank Goldman Sachs clashed with a cabinet minister in Singapore — which criminalizes homosexuality — for hosting an LGBT student recruiting event. The minister said the country is a “largely conservative society” and that “foreign companies here should respect local culture and context.” In 2012, Goldman’s Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein also said the bank had lost a client due to its support for LGBT rights.
Large banks and other corporations whose business centered primarily in major cities — like law and consulting firms — tended to score most highly in the report. Companies working with natural resources tended to perform poorly. ExxonMobil is one of the most closely watched, because it opposed calls to introduce LGBT protections until President Barack Obama issued an executive order last year requiring such provisions from federal contractors. This year the company scored only 40%, among the lowest of any major corporation.
HRC’s Fidas said the organization planned to incrementally expand its criteria in the coming years to place more emphasis on global operations.
The hardest criteria to apply globally, she suggested, would be equalizing health care benefits for LGBT employees and their partners, since many national health care systems are not under an employer’s control as they are in the U.S. The next step, she said, would likely be to encourage companies to provide support for LGBT employee groups abroad. Such groups have been important tools for promoting broader policy changes within corporations.
In a statement accompanying the report Fidas said a "true culture of inclusion ... won’t be achieved until companies turn inclusive policies into everyday practice across their organizations.”