Shop with your (gay-friendly) values

67838081_e8084e86acWith the (yuk) holiday shopping season upon us, this weekend seems like a good time to devote a series of blogposts to the idea of shopping with your values. But before I get to today’s topic–the Buying for Equality guide published by the Human Rights Campaign–let me first humbly suggest that one way to express your values this season, if you care about leaving a more sustainable planet to our children, is not to shop at all, or to shop less.

Over-consumption is a problem. If all of the 6.8 billion people on the planet lived like Americans we’d be in trouble. Today, Black Friday, the busiest day of the year is also known as Buy Nothing Day. This year the organizers are saying:

We want you to not only stop buying for 24 hours, but to shut off your lights, televisions and other nonessential appliances. We want you to park your car, turn off your phones and log off of your computer for the day.

This is a nonstarter for me. I’m not parking my car, turning off my phone or shutting down my laptop (obviously). No way, no how. Indeed, I worry that a call to action like that turns off more people than it inspires. I much prefer the holiday messaging from the Center for a New American Dream, which exhorts people to simplify the holidays, by planning a holiday with more fun and less stuff. But most of us still want at least some stuff. Today, and over the next couple of days, I’ll try to suggest some ways we can acquire stuff that aligns with our values. [click to continue…]

Wal-Mart CEO has a problem with gays

Mike Duke, who has been chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores for just three months, is getting a lot of attention in the blogosphere. It’s not the kind of attention a new CEO wants.

“Shameful, bigoted and discriminatory” is the headline over one blog post about Duke.

Why? Because, it turns out, Duke signed a petition last year that put an initiative known as Act 1 on the ballot in his home state of Arkansas. The controversial initiative says that only married couples may become adoptive or foster parents in the state, closing the door for same-sex couples. It passed in November with 57 percent of the vote.

Mr, Duke, what on earth were you thinking?

Needless to say, this is unwelcome news for Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, and it’s especially hurtful to the company’s gay employees. Wal-Mart has struggled in recent years to figure out how to deal with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues. It supported an employee group called Wal-Mart Pride, which triggered a backlash, which subsequently caused the company to pull back its support for national gay-rights group. (See my 2007 FORTUNE.com column headlined Wal-Mart shuns gay groups.) More broadly, Wal-Mart has worked hard and for the most part effectively to position itself as a good corporate citizen as it tries to expand from its rural roots into urban, liberal areas. This will be a setback.

News that Duke had signed the petition caught the company flat-footed. When I asked a Wal-Mart spokesman for a comment, I got this response and no more:

I can confirm that Mr. Duke did sign the petition. Also, Wal-Mart did not take a position on the ballot initiative.

I learned from a source inside Wal-Mart that Duke was going to meet with the Wal-Mart Pride group to talk about the issue. (Note to Wal-Mart employees—feel free to let me know how that meeting went by email at marc.gunther@gmail.com.) A gay employee told me that he hopes that this incident will be a catalyst for positive change.
The story of how Duke’s name came to light—you can see a photocopy of the petition sheet (PDF) here—is the latest illustration of how digital media is exposing corporate and individual behavior.

Last week, a gay rights group i called KnowThyNeighbor.org posted online the names of the 83,000 Arkansas citizens who signed the petition, in a searchable database. The petitions are public records.

KnowThyNeighbor.org had previously published names of more than 500,000 people who signed anti-gay petitions in Massachusetts and Florida. In a press release about the Arkansas outing (my word), Tom Lang, the group’s director, says:

These petition signers need to stand behind their signatures and be responsible for this dehumanizing attack on the gay community. It’s disgraceful that they have chosen to exercise their prejudice at the expense of children who are now being denied access to loving adoptive and foster parents.

Lang urges family members, friends, co-workers and customers of those who signed the petition to confront them:

These conversations can be uncomfortable for both parties but they are desperately needed.  The more that gays and lesbians talk about the importance of their relationships and their love for their children, the faster stereotypes break down and both sides begin to realize how much they have in common.

Two days later, a reader identified as Concerned Arkansas Citizen posted a comment:

One VERY prominent person in Arkansas that has signed the petition is Michael Duke of Rogers, AR. He is the new CEO of Walmart Stores, Inc. He should explain himself.

By Monday, gay and liberal bloggers like Queerty and Daily Kos were running with the story and gettings lots of comments. Who says bloggers never dig up news?

For what it’s worth, Wal-Mart got a 40% rating in 2008 on the Corporate Equality Index published by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s biggest LGBT advocacy group. Target, a rival, got a 100% rating and Costco got a 93% rating.

Ellen Kahn, Director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Family Project, sent me this comment by email:

When Mike Duke voted in favor of ACT 1…he essentially closed the door to a hopeful future for the hundreds of children in Arkansas’s foster care system…Duke should think about the real lives of these kids and show some compassion.

Duke’s defenders including Jerry Cox, director of the Arkansas Family Council, who called it an invasion of privacy to publicize the names of citizens who are exercising their right to petition the government, according to the Arkansas Times. What’s more, he wrote, many voters will sign any petition based upon “one simple principle: that the people, whenever possible, have the right to vote on issues that could directly impact their lives.”

I’m not persuaded. Duke chose to sign a petition, which is a public document, so how has his privacy been invaded? What’s more, if you believe, as I do, that equality for LGBT people under the law is a civil rights issue, then there’s no reason to put it up to a popular vote.

At the very least, Duke’s decision to sign the petition reflects poor judgment. As a senior executive of Wal-Mart, he should have known that supporting a controversial measure widely seen as anti-gay could boomerang. (The Arkansas Democrat and Gazette called Act 1 “just another exercise in stirring up bad feelings.”) Duke has alienated LGBT customers and their allies, as well many of his own employees.

And if Duke figured that no one would ever know, well, that wasn’t very smart either. Several years ago, the writers Don Tapscott and David Ticoll wrote a book about transparency in business aptly called The Naked Corporation. There are few secrets these days in corporate America. CEOs (and future CEOs) need to pay close attention to how they behave—on and off the job.

Marriott and Milk

Last month’s passage of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, unleashed anger among gay and lesbian Americans. One target: Marriott Corp., mostly because the company’s founding family and current CEO, Bill Marriott, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints. See this and this and this.

Mormons, of course, played a crucial role in passing Prop 8. News reports say that half of the $40 million spent to support Prop 8 came from LDS members, who also canvassed neighborhoods and staffed phone banks. This is ironic, at the very least, as Hendrik Hertzberg noted in The New Yorker:

You might think that an organization that for most of the first of its not yet two centuries of existence was the world’s most notorious proponent of startlingly unconventional forms of wedded bliss would be a little reticent about issuing orders to the rest of humanity specifying exactly who should be legally entitled to marry whom But no.

But why go after Marriott? According to my friend Bob Witeck, who runs a consulting firm called Witeck-Combs that specializes in gay issues and advises Marriott, neither Bill Marriott nor members of his immediate family donated to the campaign on behalf of Prop 8. What’s more (and this is undisputed), Marriott as an employer has an exemplary record around diversity in general and LGBT employees in particular. It gets a 100% rating in the Corporate Equality Index (PDF), an annual survey of corporate practices done by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group. The HRC’s inaugural gala next month will be held at the Mayflower Hotel, a Marriott property in Washington. GLAAD, an activist group that focuses on the media portrayals of gays, has held its awards ceremony at Manhattan’s Marriott Marquis.

So it would appear that the Marriott Corp. is under fire only because the family belongs to the Mormon church. Bob Witeck says this is unfair. “Their policies and practices have been good for a long time,” he told me. “This notion of targeting people because of their faith is deeply troubling.”

At first, I agreed. Anti-Mormon bias is no less troubling that anti-gay bias. Then I saw Milk, the wonderful new movie about the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in America. Part of it is about a notorious California ballot proposal to ban gay teachers from schools that was defeated in the 1970s. Milk argues, persuasively, that singling out gays and lesbians for discrimination in any way, shape or form is simply un-American.

The broad issue raised by the backlash against Marriott is this: What role should CEOS and big companies play when confronted with controversial issues? Certainly they make themselves heard when it comes to the issues directly affecting them, like taxes, trade, labor and environmental laws, not to mention multibillion dollar bailouts. Ought they not take a stand on social issues, too? Indeed, some do—Microsoft endorsed a gay-rights measure in the state of Washington and Procter & Gamble donated money to a gay rights group to help defeat an anti-gay law in its hometown of Cincinnati, as I wrote in a FORTUNE story called Queer Inc. in 20006.

Bill Marriott responded to the boycott threats last month on his blog. “Neither I, nor the company, contributed to the campaign to pass Proposition 8,” he wrote. “We embrace all people as our customers, associates, owners and franchisees regardless of race, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation.” Later, he recorded a Thanksgiving message around the diversity theme, mentioning sexual orientation. Clearly the company is worried about the gay backlash.

My guess is that Bill Marriott, who is 76 and a political conservative, has come a long way on the issue of gay rights. But for all his talk about diversity, he has yet to take a position on gay marriage or Prop 8. He has no obligation to do so, but if you believe that gay marriage is a civil rights issue, just as interracial marriage was once a civil rights issue, silence or neutrality is unacceptable. On this point, Milk the movie and Milk the activist are unequivocal. Either you’re for us or against us, Harvey Milk would have said.

As one commenter to Bill Marriott’s blog wrote:

When it comes to gay issues, Marriott is conveniently a hotel chain that is welcoming and accepting of all travelers. When it comes to Mormon issues, Marriott is conveniently a company founded and led by members of the LDS church and fully supportive of church doctrine. Marriott can’t play it both ways. Through this posting, Bill Marriott is attempting to salvage Marriott’s reputation with a PR diversion. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides”.

Another disagreed:

It is amazing to me that in this great country, where we prize the precious freedoms of religion and speech, that a man can be criticized and attacked for his personal beliefs and religion. Mr. Marriott didn’t contribute to the Prop 8 campaign. His personal beliefs are irrelevant, because those are his PERSONAL beliefs… I’m just so saddened to see such hate and bigotry from a community who proclaims tolerance and love.

My own thoughts, which are subject to change: I’ve met Bill Marriott, who is an extraordinarily decent man, and I know from hearing from employees that Marriott is a gay-friendly company that values all of its workers. I know that it’s a lot to ask of the Marriott CEO to support gay marriage. But Prop 8 is a hateful and hurtful law, designed to take away the right of gay marriage granted by California courts. It was opposed by mainstream pols including President-elect Obama and Gov. Schwarzenegger.

Bill Marriot has the right to try to finesse the controversy. But gays and lesbians have the right to spend their money with companies that fully and openly support their cause.

A final thought: The future of the gay marriage issue could not be clearer—the younger you are, the more likely you are to support equality for gays in public and private life. Smart companies see where the world is going.

Big Business and gay rights

You won’t hear much about gay marriage this week at the Republican convention, but it remains a hotly-contested political issue, particularly in California, where a fall ballot initiative would overturn the state Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to wed. John McCain supports the ballot Proposition 8 while Barack Obama and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger oppose it. A recent poll shows that most Californians side with their governor, Obama and gay rights groups like Equality for All. Should gay marriage win at the ballot box in the nation’s most populous state, that would be big news.

A political win for same-sex marriage would also reflect the fact that in corporate America, support for gay marriage – or at least workplace policies that treat same-sex couples the same as they treat heterosexuals – is fast becoming business as usual. Indeed, the shifting political tides are being driven, in part, by business.

Two new reports, released on the day after Labor Day, point to the changes unfolding in hundreds of American workplaces.

The Human Rights Campaign, in its seventh annual Corporate Equality Index, awarded 259 businesses, each with at least 500 employees, a 100% score for their treatment of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) workers. These business collectively employ 9 million people, and among them are dozens of household names, some of which may surprise you—Shell Oil, which is based in Houston, Texas (Bush country the last time I looked), Lockheed Martin, America’s biggest defense contractor, and Marriott Corp., which is led by the politically conservative and Mormon Marriott family. Longtime gay-friendly companies like AMR Corp. (American Airlines), Eastman Kodak, Intel, JP Morgan Chase, Nike and Xerox also notched perfect scores, even as HRC has raised its benchmarks over the years.

Joe Solomonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, writes in his intro:

Since (our) first report in 2002, the rates at which corporate America has expanded policies, practices and benefits to include LGBT employees have been faster than perhaps many thought possible.

All 259 companies with perfect scores support domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples. They stand behind their LGBT workers for pragmatic business reasons, as Marvin Odum, president of Shell, told the Human Rights Campaign: “A 100-percent rating helps us to better attract, recruit and retain diverse talent.”

These 259 companies are part of a self-selected group that chooses to work with HRC. But Daryl Herrschaft, director of the HRC’s Workplace Project, who oversees the report, tells me that 283 of the FORTUNE 500 companies now provide domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples. Think of that as a majority vote of Big Business for gay rights.

Companies that scored 100% also provide employment protection for transgender workers. The transgender issue is contentious inside the LGBT community because some gay rights groups supported the idea of removing protection for transgender workers from ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a proposed federal law that was passed last year by Congress but vetoed by President Bush. Removing transgender protection was seen as making the bill more palatable to moderates.

Transgender issues are also highlighted in a new survey from Out & Equal, a nonprofit network of workplace LGBT networks and their supporters. The online opinion survey found that “seven out of ten heterosexual adults (71%) agree that how an employee performs at their job should be the standard for judging an employee, not whether or not they are transgender.”

“A lot of people now have colleagues who have transitioned on the job, and life goes on,” says Selisse Berry, executive director of Out & Equal. Of course, professing to be fair-minded in a survey is a different thing from going to work on a Monday morning to learn that Grace from accounting has turned into George.

The Out & Equal report itself demonstrates that surveys are an imperfect measure of workplace behavior: Nine out of 10 heterosexual adults said they would feel indifferent or positively upon learning that a co-worker was lesbian or gay, and only 10% said they would feel negatively. Yet about 20% of gays and lesbians report being harassed on the job by co-workers and two-thirds say they have faced some sort of discrimination at work. So it appears that the bigoted 10% minority have been pretty vocal.

Still, both surveys make clear that all the trends are moving in the right direction for supporters of gay rights. Other research indicates that people who actually know other people who are gay tend to be far more supportive of gay rights than those who don’t.

As Selisse Berry told me:

Because we all spend so much time at work, and people are sitting in meetings and cubicles next to people of different races and gender and sexual orientation, we’ve come a long way. People get to know a person as a person and, by the way, she’s a lesbian.

The Out & Equal survey was conducted by Harris Interactive in conjunction with Witeck-Combs Communications, a Washington D.C.-based marketing and consulting firm that specializes in the LGBT market and advises such big companies as Wal-Mart and American Airlines. Bob Witeck, a founder of Witeck-Combs and all-around good guy, has a column addressing these issues on Huffington Post.

Here’s a graphic from the Human Rights Campaign report that shows which way things are going: