Making a Business Case for Marriage Equality

08/31/2012 12:07 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

The 2012 Democratic National Convention kicks off next week in Charlotte, N.C., and for the first time ever, marriage equality is on the platform. The president of the United States supports it, yet, ironically, we are gathering in a state that upheld its ban on gay marriage in a May referendum. Plenty has been said -- and will continue to be said -- about the incongruity of this situation. At the very least, it is a wry commentary on our mixed-up world.

"Why should corporate America's support of marriage equality be so inconsistent?" My business partner Ted Gavin has been posing this question to me for months now. Ted is a Certified Turnaround Professional; he is in the business of fixing troubled companies. He is an expert in finding equitable solutions for organizations' creditors and stakeholders. Common sense and rationality are the touchstones to his approach in business situations that are often highly charged and emotional. So it's no surprise that Ted has a clear-eyed and pragmatic view of what companies need to do now with regard to this issue.

Ted's position and mine is that companies that live in the past will not thrive and grow in the future. And a diverse work force with equal rights is the future. So why can't American businesses accept this and move on?

Companies across America have been making groundbreaking (and risky) decisions, founded on solid business cases, for years. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company set an early example in 2004, when it began offering benefits and diversity training to all employees. That same year it received a 100-percent rating on the Corporate Equality Index from the Human Rights Campaign. In the state of Washington, Boeing was also an early adopter, offering same-sex domestic partner benefits. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says that his company's pro-gay positions are about making its employees proud, and aligning with its corporate values. In Minnesota General Mills reinforced its support of gay marriage by publicly announcing its opposition to the state's ban on gay marriage, which will be voted on in November.

It is curious, though, that while major companies like REI, Google, and Amazon announced their support of gay marriage, others remain silent, or come up just short of committing their support. Marriott Corporation is a perfect example. Bill Marriott demonstrates brilliant thinking in a recent Businessweek interview in which he says, "This church helped me raise a family and has brought great joy and happiness to my life. But that didn't mean gay employees had any less status at Marriott. We have to take care of our people, regardless of their sexual orientation or anything else." Bill, it's time for Marriott to take the next logical step!

Even here in North Carolina, where Bank of America provides its 200,000-plus employees with same-sex partner health benefits, the company remained silent before, during, and after the May vote. Why? What were they waiting for?

My friend Bob Page, president of Greensboro, N.C.-based Replacements, Ltd., took a big risk last year when he publicly opposed the state's ban on gay marriage. He built his company on a business model of diversity and inclusion. He and his partner have been together for 14 years, and Bob has grown Replacements into an $80-million company that employs 450 people. Bob's public support resulted in a downturn in his North Carolina sales, but it was just a small hiccup. Overall, his bottom line was not affected, and his company is doing better than ever.

So what do we want? We want Corporate America to support marriage equality, of course, but not just because it is right thing to do, but because ultimately it makes good business sense. As companies strive to attract the best and the brightest to complete in a global marketplace, to clearly reflect their community, customer, and employee populations' diverse faces, and to demonstrate value to their shareholders' support for "progressive" issues such as marriage equality, are not questions of if but when.