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When policies supporting LGBT staff clash with local realities, some companies back down, while others find a way to bridge the divide.

Many multinationals operate in countries where sexual orientation and gender identity differences are a social and political battleground – or criminalised. : ‘Between two blocks’ by Gery Wibowo on Unsplash Many multinationals operate in countries where sexual orientation and gender identity differences are a social and political battleground – or criminalised. : ‘Between two blocks’ by Gery Wibowo on Unsplash

When policies supporting LGBT staff clash with local realities, some companies back down, while others find a way to bridge the divide.

In an office in Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta, a local manager of an international corporation confronts a dilemma.

Tasked by his company’s European headquarters to promote its LGBT policies, the manager faces heavy pushback and resistance from his team members.

“Many of my colleagues are asking me, ‘Why do I have to talk about LGBT rights in these meetings? Does that mean that we are pro-LGBT?’,” the manager said in an interview.

“It is a very difficult topic to discuss. It can create a lot of division internally. Therefore, we don’t talk about this now. It’s best to avoid it.”

The scene is a microcosm of a larger challenge facing multinational enterprises that operate in countries with customs different than in their home base: how to align progressive global policies with local realities.

Although diversity initiatives are common in Indonesian workplaces, they typically focus on topics such as gender equality and equality for people with disabilities.

After discussing the problem with his boss in Europe, the manager decided to drop the policy.

Many multinationals committed to LGBT inclusivity are facing the same challenge: company-wide policies enacted to support LGBT inclusion collide with local norms and politics.

The manager’s decision to give up shows one response to the issue. But a recent study of multinationals operating in Indonesia has found some companies are finding it’s possible to uphold their LGBT-inclusive policies while minimising any backlash.

Inclusion vs getting by

Global firms increasingly offer company-wide awareness training on LGBT topics, protect LGBT staff through non-discrimination policies and sponsor social initiatives for LGBT employees. Some might even participate in Pride events and lobby governments to advocate for LGBT rights.

This approach — often falling under broader equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives —  is common in places where the legal and political climate is supportive of LGBT people. But multinationals also operate in countries where sexual orientation and gender identity differences are a social and political battleground – or criminalised.

Sometimes companies in this position scale back on promoting their values. Actively lobbying for LGBT inclusion can provoke negative reactions from governments and communities and upset customers, so companies tailor their policies to suit local political and legal conditions.

The removal of rainbow flags from multinationals’ logos during the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar broadcast this compromise for all the world to see.

It also showed that ignoring and breaching LGBT people’s human rights can have consequences for their international accountability and reputation.

In an effort to bridge this gap, some international companies in places such as Indonesia have adopted an approach that could be called ‘covert allyship’.

The idea of allyship has gained traction as a way to support and show solidarity with marginalised groups or people – a means for those outside the group to align with their cause.

Covert allyship, by extension, is about giving silent, respectful, subtle forms of support to universally protected but locally disadvantaged groups who cannot be openly supported because of unprotective or discriminatory local laws, hostile practices and other barriers.

While allyship has been widely invoked in other areas of EDI, covert and subtle forms of allyship have received little attention. But it can potentially be applied to other human rights and equality concerns such as gender, ethnicity, class and religion, where circumstances call for it.

Local realities

Despite its officially secular stance, Indonesia has had a rise in anti-gay campaigns driven by right-wing Islamic groups, resulting in arrests of gay people.

In 2016, the Indonesian government issued a series of regulations prohibiting promotion of LGBT rights and values in the media, education and other public spheres.

In 2022, a new criminal code made consensual sex or cohabitation outside of marriage a criminal offence, which could be used against LGBT people, who are not permitted to marry.

These regulations effectively outlawed any public expression of support for LGBT rights.

A 2018 survey on Indonesians’ attitudes towards LGBT issues revealed that a wide majority (87 percent) of the 1,220 respondents saw LGBT people as a threat.

Government officials and religious leaders have called for the criminalisation of same-sex sexual relations. The Indonesian Religious Affairs Minister also publicly stated that gay marriage goes against religious norms.

LGBT people have been arrested, prosecuted and even publicly caned in some regions of Indonesia.

For multinationals, Indonesia is a prime example of an emerging market  unsupportive of LGBT inclusion. While anti-LGBT stances are also seen in conservative political movements in more supportive countries, the broader social environment — and the law — enable a more open approach.

‘We have to choose our battles’

In a recently published article in Human Resource Management, researchers from UNSW Business School in Australia, Brunel University London in the UK, and the University of Guelph in Canada studied the LGBT policies of 12 Western European and US global multinationals from three sectors (pharmaceutical, consumer goods and retail) with a significant presence in Indonesia. All 12 companies had a local headquarters in Jakarta and also operated factories in other parts of the country.

The adoption of LGBT policies by the companies’ global headquarters resulted in notable tensions, particularly for those that supported LGBT rights on social media pages visible to Indonesians.

Five had implemented some form of LGBT policies internally, but none publicly advocated for LGBT rights, which according to local managers would provoke governments and upset current or potential customers.

Many interviewees pointed to examples of organisations that had faced boycotts or other issues with the government over supporting LGBT rights.

Several interviewees also noted that given the sensitivity of the topic, “we have to choose our battles”. Another said,  “This could get us into trouble with some of our local stakeholders.”

The effort and resources spent developing cooperative relations with the host government in Indonesia might – they felt – be damaged or disappear if they were too strident in questioning established norms.

Safety first

One manager from a US-based pharmaceutical company pointed out that LGBT employees often preferred to apply to Western multinationals because their corporate headquarters publicly promoted LGBT rights.

I asked one LGBT person, “Why are you applying to our company?” And he said, “I know your position is very open, and you are very fair. So, I feel safe to apply. I feel safe that you will treat me the same as the others.”

Other multinationals suggested that such policies weren’t needed, simply because they didn’t have any LGBT employees. One Indonesian manager said, “Maybe it would be good to help them, but we don’t have such people in our organisation.”

This claim is unlikely, given the size of their local operations and the noted trend of LGBT people applying to multinationals because of their more supportive policies. More likely is that LGBT employees were not encouraged to discuss or display non-traditional behaviours. Conversations with local experts confirmed that many organisations prefer to ignore the existence of LGBT employees.

While five of the multinationals had made progress in supporting LGBT employees in their local headquarters in Jakarta, resistance was harder in their factories located in more conservative parts of the country.

They are not ready for this, you know. Indonesians outside Bali or Jakarta are still very conservative. These kinds of debates haven’t even started there, and this goes against their religion. We made some progress here at our headquarters, especially among younger colleagues, but no way that we can talk about this with our factory workers.

Making it work

In the face of these challenges, the five multinationals that had successfully implemented LGBT policies had taken an approach of covert allyship.

They had appointed dedicated local diversity and inclusion managers to oversee implementation of LGBT policies and monitor progress. These managers acted as a resource for employees and provided support for diversity initiatives. Global headquarters also got involved, through seminars and the sharing of best practices from successful initiatives in other countries.

The study found that training programs for raising awareness and promoting inclusivity need to be culturally sensitive and address specific challenges for employees in the country. Starting with ‘easier’ topics such as gender diversity and emphasising human rights in general before discussing more sensitive topics were likely to lead to better outcomes.

The companies had also enforced strict policies and procedures to prevent microaggressions, harassment or violence against LGBT employees. This included providing a safe and secure work environment and conducting regular employee training sessions to raise awareness of the issue.

Covert allyship is a pragmatic approach that respects difference, not a magic solution, and it still carries risks. Its value is in providing a viable route to fostering inclusive cultures within a diverse workforce — particularly in national settings where the legal constraints and managerial cultures offer few alternatives.

Christiaan Röell is a lecturer (assistant professor) in International Business at the UNSW Business School in Sydney, Australia. Christiaan’s research is focused on how multinationals contribute to the UN SDGs in emerging markets. His work has been published in journals such as the Journal of Management Studies, Human Resource Management, Journal of World Business and the British Journal of Management.

Mustafa Özbilgin is a professor of Organisational Behaviour at Brunel University London. Drawing on critical, relational and comparative social science perspectives, he researches change of policy and practice of equality, diversity and inclusion at work in the UK and internationally. He is an engaged scholar, driven by values of workplace democracy, equality and inclusion at work.

Felix Arndt is a professor and the John F Wood Chair in Entrepreneurship at the University of Guelph, Canada, and a Research Fellow at the Center for Business and Sports of the Stockholm School of Economics, Sweden. He is interested in the question of how novelty emerges in business settings. He is an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder and passionate about providing opportunities to others.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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