Corporations As Social Change Makers? Panel Discusses New UN Standards of Conduct for Business

| By Tyler Brent

“If we are to achieve faster global progress towards equality for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and intersex people, businesses will not only have to meet their human rights responsibilities, they must become active agents of change.”

      - Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Inspired by this quote, and on the final evening of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce’s (NGLCC’s) 2nd annual Global LGBTI Business Week, NGLCC Global co-hosted the discussion, “Businesses as Agents of Change,” at the United Nations Foundation in Washington, D.C. The event was co-hosted by the UN Foundation, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Business Council for the United Nations. Together, the speakers and organizations demonstrated the ways in which multinational corporations can advocate on behalf of the LGBTI community globally, particularly by following the newly released United Nations Standards of Conduct for Business on Tackling Discrimination against LGBTI people.

Three prestigious speakers kicked-off the event. Mary-Frances Wain (UN Foundation Executive Director for Philanthropic Investments) and Walter Cortés (Chief Financial Officer of the UN Foundation and the Better World Fund),  welcomed the audience and discussed the UN Foundation’s work, which includes helping to achieve the sustainable development goals and to carry forward the mandate of the UN. Cortés ended on a powerful note when he quoted a UNAIDS official who said, “there is no achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs) without the LGBTI community.” César Casas Ferrer (CEO & Co-Founder of the Mexican Federation of LGBT Entrepreneurs), then spoke to the various ways in which his organization works with Mexican corporations to eliminate barriers and create opportunities for LGBTI people and staff.

Steve Clemons (Editor at Large at The Atlantic), continued the conversation by introducing the evening’s four panelists. The speakers included Chris Crespo (Inclusiveness Director of the Americas Talent Team at Ernst & Young), Fabrice Houdart (Human Rights Officer at the UN’s Human Rights Office), Phil Crehan (Director of NGLCC Global), and Sarah Altschuller (Counsel at Foley Hoag).

Houdart first introduced the UN’s five standards for businesses:

  • RESPECT the human rights of LGBTI people
  • ELIMINATE workplace discrimination against LGBTI employees
  • SUPPORT LGBTI employees at work
  • PREVENT discrimination and related abuses against LGBTI customers, suppliers and distributors – and insist that suppliers do the same
  • STAND UP for the human rights of LGBTI people in the communities where companies do business

Houdart, one of the authors of these standards, explains that companies can utilize them as a platform to align their policies and practice with the human rights of LGBTI people. He admits that “everyone loves the fifth standard” which calls on businesses to act in the public sphere. This standard is a call to companies worldwide to take steps to push for social change on these issues which is needed in a world where the space for civil society is shrinking. He emphasized that the private sector, “has a huge opportunity to pick up where they left off and make sure that we keep that momentum.”

Crehan then spoke to the value of these standards, namely how they provide the tools, incentives, and common language for corporations as well as civil society organizations to combat discrimination in the labor market; however, he also posed a challenge during the dissemination and implementation of the standards – namely, proponents should be cognizant of the complexity of how discrimination operates as well as the myriad of ways it is practiced by employers. Additionally, he noted two ways to promote an understanding of this complexity: collect data on LGBTI discrimination in the labor market (to address the immense data gaps on LGBTI people), and work with civil society leaders, frontline defenders, and experts on discrimination. Regarding the latter point, NGLCC Global is an international network comprised of LGBT Chambers of Commerce and business networks, and represent a network of expertise on LGBTI discrimination in the labor market and when creating businesses.

From a corporate perspective, Crespo declares these standards, especially the third standard to support LGBTI staff at work, imperative to protect the safety of a company’s workforce. As an example, she noted that EY employees travel around the globe for work and that even within the United States, LGBTI employees will not be treated the same in different states. Crespo, who leads the companies LGBT+ inclusiveness strategy in the Americas, gave some background on why business became involved in advocating on behalf of the LGBTI community. With certain laws and policies lacking in the localities where their employees work, “business got involved to sign on to amicus briefs, get involved and make our company policies fill the gap our government wasn’t doing.”

Altschuller sees the huge opportunity that these standards provide to keep corporations accountable for their human rights commitments. Many companies have human rights policies affirming that they operate with respect to human rights. Altschuller, who works with corporations on their compliance with emerging regulatory requirements, asserts that it is now imperative to go to businesses and start engaging with their employees, investors and others who are interested and saying, “we have had six years of statements from companies that they operate with respect to human rights,” and now it is time to urge them to advocate for the human rights of LGBTI people.

Nedra Dickson, Supplier Diversity and Inclusion Lead at Accenture, closed the night with a reminder of the benefits these standards bring to corporations. She emphasized the point made that was made during the evening by Walter Cortés that “human rights are universal, interrelated, and mutually reinforcing,” and a corporation must respect the rights of all people. She also noted that the standards provide useful universal language that all companies can use to support the LGBTI community. This framework provides actionable steps that a corporation, irrespective of location or industry, can use to meet their responsibility to respect everyone’s rights, including the rights of LGBTI people.