Irish vote on same-sex marriage: Why it is (also) the business of business

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Legalize gay

Lucy and Caitlin, at Iam, Cab Vol in Edinburgh. [Robyn Ramsay/Flickr]

Many companies have jumped on the bandwagon of supporting marriage equality, but only a select few of them are consistent, plausible, and authentic in their efforts, write Florian Wettstein and Dorothea Baur.

By Florian Wettstein and Dorothea Baur, professors at the University of St. Gallen, in Switzerland.

This Friday, in a potentially historic referendum, Ireland will vote on whether or not to allow same-sex marriage. Ireland would become the first nation in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote, though it is one of a number of countries to have stepped up efforts to close the marriage equality gap most recently.

In a light-speed transformation, four-fifths of American states, as well as the US government, have come to recognise same-sex marriage. Decisive support for this sea change came from what some would see as an unlikely ally: business. Some of the country’s most recognised consumer brands such as Starbucks, Google, and Microsoft and some smaller, but well-known progressive companies like Ben & Jerry’s have been unusually vocal in throwing their support behind the cause. Indeed, the proactive role of companies in taking an open and public stand in favor of marriage equality may have played an important role in swaying the entrepreneurial minds of Americans.

Businesses have been less vocal in Ireland, although some have taken position too. Keen business leaders have realised that the quest for equal rights for same-sex couples is in the interest of business. Openness and diversity makes for a larger talent pool to choose from; businesses, especially those with international work forces, depend on and flourish in environments in which all of their employees feel welcome and respected; and companies are keen to build a reputation as youthful and progressive especially among its young consumer base.

But there is also a nagging concern that business may be overstepping its boundaries by actively and publicly taking a stand on social issues like gay marriage. The worry about business having too much influence over politics is justified. However, we believe that for some businesses, speaking up in this matter may be legitimate or even warranted. Companies which build their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) not around specific activities, but on fundamental values like respect, fairness and equality, may see a need to take a stand on issues which threaten their fundamental values at their core. After all, at least in the long run, it will be difficult for a company to live such values toward the inside if they are undermined systematically in the environment in which it operates. Nothing less than character and the integrity of the company is at stake here, that is, the consistency between the values they promote toward the inside and what they stand for toward the outside. For such deeply value-driven companies, we believe, political advocacy for pro-social causes like gay marriage can be viewed as a matter of corporate responsibility.

Three elements determine the legitimacy of a company’s vocal engagement for pro-social causes: consistency, plausibility, and authenticity. First and as mentioned, while such engagement does not need to be connected directly to a company’s core business activities, it does need to be consistent with and indeed derive from its core values; second, in order to be plausible, a company’s engagement for a specific cause must be part of a long-term strategy to support the issue, rather than an isolated one-time promotional activity; third, such advocacy is authentic only if the company supports the cause on a broader basis, through targeted action and in its own operations rather than only through words.

Thus, there is a fine line between genuine concern and mere window dressing. Many companies have jumped on the bandwagon of supporting marriage equality, but only a select few of them are consistent, plausible, and authentic in their efforts. Those companies have legitimately earned their right to advocate – and therefore it may be worth listening to what they have to say.

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