Life in the Global Closet

As I walked off the stage in Shanghai, he stood just outside the circle of audience participants who had approached me. After the crowd thinned, he introduced himself and quietly said, “No one even says the word ‘gay’ in public. That was momentarily liberating.”

This successful finance professional was referring to my having just done so as I rattled off examples of different dimensions of diversity. He shared that in corporate China, being gay is such a taboo he must hide an important part of his identity.

The implications of being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender span a mind-boggling spectrum from what’s-the-big-deal (Netherlands) to being punishable by firing (certain states in the U.S.), imprisonment (Uganda) or even death (Iran). Then there’s the shaming, ostracism and deselection from opportunities (See map). A 2011 survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy revealed 48 percent of LGBT workers in the U.S. do not feel free to be out at work.

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This spectrum poses extraordinary challenges for diversity executives developing global strategies to address sexual orientation diversity without risking an employee being imprisoned or losing advancement opportunities, like expat assignments in LGBT-hostile places. Rapid changes around the world regarding greater LGBT freedoms and the associated backlash are one key indicator that global diversity is a force to contend with.

Italian-headquartered pasta company Barilla discovered this the hard way. In a 2013 radio interview, Barilla’s chairman made comments that essentially disinvited gays from buying its products. The firestorm fueled by tweets went viral, Barilla products went on boycott lists and the controversy left the company’s reputation tarnished.
The event triggered a soul searching for the company that saw the crisis not as a PR problem but as a catalyst to meet a culture challenge. Leaders took a deep look not just at LGBT inclusion but other ways Barilla may not have lived up to its self-perception as the welcoming brand it wanted and needed to be.

The company created the chief diversity officer role filled by a Brazilian living in the U.S., Talita Erickson, and formed internal and external diversity councils. The external counsel includes American LGBT activist David Mixner, Italian Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi and Harvard Kennedy School of Government Executive Director Patricia Bellinger. Barilla created collaborative relationships with organizations such as GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign to learn how to do things differently.

The company also conducted focus groups on diversity and inclusion in factories, offices and executive boardrooms in Russia, Turkey, France, Sweden, Greece, Italy and the U.S. and conducted a global survey. The findings are now being turned into actions.

Uncovering LGBT issues accelerated this Italian multinational’s awareness of the realities of global diversity, not only about LGBT but also other ways people may be excluded.

Another prominent, closeted group that exists globally is made up of employees with invisible disability they choose to hide for fear of being shamed, ostracized or deselected from opportunities. I learned about an American executive assistant who was hard of hearing who secretly taped her work sessions with her boss so she could make sure she did not miss anything. Think about the troubling mix here of acceptance, fear and ethics. Then there is the extended circle of people who feel they must hide that they are caregivers for people with disabilities.

As different as diverse identities can be, they have some surprising points of connection. These lend themselves to similar strategies to normalize what is simply a different way of being that has little to do with a person’s ability to do great work — if companies look in the mirror and ensure their powerful global brands and presence accept and celebrate difference.

Andrés T. Tapia is a senior partner in the workforce performance, diversity and inclusion practice at Korn Ferry and author of “The Inclusion Paradox.” He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.