Atlanta (AP) – Major corporations invested in Southern states have become some of the staunchest opponents of bills they consider discriminatory, facing off against Republican lawmakers eager to portray their states as the best home for global brands.
The NFL, Apple and other behemoths have cajoled Republicans into rejecting or softening bills in recent years that supporters say protect people who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds. Companies are speaking up loudly again this year in states where such bills have been proposed as part of a backlash to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalized gay marriage.
“As a company that is committed to the principle that everyone deserves to live without fear of discrimination simply for being who they are, becoming an employer in North Carolina, where members of our teams will not have equal rights under the law, is simply untenable,” California-based PayPal CEO Dan Schulman said in a statement last week ending plans to hire 400 people for a new operations center in Charlotte. The decision is among the largest tangible effects of a new North Carolina law overruling LGBT anti-discrimination measures passed by local governments.
Watchers of corporate America’s approach to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues said such public statements are only one way companies have been supportive, pointing to several years of efforts to win over LGBT employees and customers.
CEOs sometimes take the lead, as in 2013 when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz told a shareholder who believed the company’s pro-gay marriage position hurt profits: “Not every decision is an economic decision.” Some companies have gone beyond what’s required by state or federal law for equal employment policies and benefits. The Corporate Equality Index survey conducted by the Human Rights Campaign, which has graded companies’ environment for LGBT employees since 2002, gave 13 companies a perfect score that first year. This year’s survey reported 407 companies hit that mark.
When Cindy Armine-Klein joined the payment technology company First Data in 2014, the firm had recently scored below 50 on the survey. CEO Frank Bisignano told Armine-Klein when she was hired as chief control officer that year to prioritize creation of LGBT programs.
Since then, the company has added coverage of domestic partners to employee benefits, included gender identity in its anti-discrimination policies and created a group to connect LGBT employees around the country. When a bill shielding opponents of same-sex marriage cleared the Georgia legislature this year, concerns quickly reached executives through that network.
The firm, headquartered in Atlanta, joined about 500 others opposing the bill. Bisignano made a personal call to thank Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal following his veto of the measure.
“When you have the opportunity to bring your whole self to work, that creates happy, active, creative employees,” said Armine-Klein, who married her wife in 2011. “That is good for the employee; that is good for us as a company; that is good for our clients.”
But firms also want to be on equal footing with competitors.
Nearly 400 companies last March signed on to a court document filed with the U.S. Supreme Court during its review of several states’ gay marriage bans, three months before the justices effectively legalized the unions. Attorneys representing the broad coalition of companies, from online retailer Amazon to video game developer Zynga, wrote the “fractured legal landscape” of differing state policies on marriage harmed the companies’ ability to operate across state lines.
M.V. Lee Badgett, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a focus on LGBT issues, said companies have made the same argument about proposals moving through state legislatures this year.
“The patchwork of laws on marriage wasn’t working for them,” Badgett said. “Now we’re looking at a new patchwork developing. That’s not going to work for them, either.”
Prospective employees or current workers offered promotions may turn them down if they have to relocate to a state where laws aren’t considered LGBT-friendly, said Steve Bucherati, who retired in 2015 after more than a decade as Coca-Cola’s chief diversity officer.
“Bluntly, companies exist to make money for share-owners,” he said. “And you can make more money for your share-owners if you can attract, develop and retain the best employees.”
The pushback to bills proposed in several Southern states retreads ground from a 2014 Arizona clash. That state’s legislature approved a bill allowing business owners with strongly held religious beliefs to deny service to gays and lesbians. American Airlines and Apple joined with state business groups to oppose the measure, while the NFL said it would reconsider selecting Arizona to host the next Super Bowl.
Days later, then-Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, said the bill “could divide Arizona in ways we cannot even imagine” and vetoed it.
The pressure can run both ways. Conservative organizations including the American Family Association have urged people to cancel their PayPal accounts because of its opposition to the North Carolina law. And the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative Christian organization, is asking supporters to write letters to companies opposing the law.
In Georgia, a state senator said he won’t buy tickets to or watch any Atlanta Braves baseball games this year because the team “opposed modest religious freedom laws.” The Braves joined around 500 other companies, including the NFL, Walt Disney Co. and Marvel Studios, in opposing the Georgia bill.
In 2012, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy drew rebukes from gay rights advocates when he said he supports a “biblical definition of family.” But the result was an outpouring of support for the Georgia-based company from conservatives, who helped set a single-day sales record by visiting the chain’s locations on a “Chick-fil-A day” organized by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an outspoken evangelical.
Since then, though, the company has steered clear of such debates and has not commented on LGBT-related legislation in Georgia or elsewhere.
“In a perfect world, a company would want its stance to be the same as its customers,” said Brandon Smith, a consultant on workplace environment and a professor at Emory University. “But if you’re a Coca-Cola, that’s impossible. They instead try to be very sensitive to anything that might be alienating. Their general play is always going to be toward acceptance.”