What companies in Kenya can do to tackle LGBTI discrimination

September 29, 2017

Levis Maina,

From social good to inclusivity

Increasingly companies are realizing that they exist beyond making profits and have a key role to play in improving the lives of the people they serve or interact with-whether it’s their customers, employees or the society at large.

We have seen companies such as Safaricom, the telecom giant taking strong positions on climate change and use of green energy; Equity Bank has been at the forefront of providing education for the underprivileged; Unilever is leading the fight against water and sanitation related diseases among children while Microsoft is bridging the digital inclusion gap among girls. There is a clear moral and corporate responsibility to do social good. Studies have shown that companies that do good, do well.

As companies seek to do the right thing for their stakeholders, they find themselves torn in the socio-cultural complexities of society, justification of the Return on Investment (ROI) on social good initiatives and most certainly the conflicting state laws where their companies are domiciled.

From a policy perspective, a global company operating in Kenya could have clear guidelines on how they recruit, hire, treat their employees and see their role in the society but may face the difficulty of implementing some of those policies. For example, IBM has globally inclusive policies that protect their Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) employees. The question for them would be, how do they implement this in a country like Kenya where Anti-LGBTI laws exist? Would they take a public position to support LGBTI equality in Kenya? What protections would an employee who came out as LGBTI have? Would they be ‘responsible’ if they kept quiet about their values and beliefs in the Kenyan market?

Discrimination and stigma against LGBTI employees

In April 1993 American Airlines faced the same dilemma. On a flight returning to Dallas/Fort Worth, after a Pride/LGBTI March in Washington a crew member on board of the airline sent a fax to the ground staff, requesting a change of pillows and blankets due to the number of “activists returning from the gay march on Washington” on board. The unsaid but clear implication was that there was a possible risk of contracting HIV/AIDS from the unusually high number of gay men aboard. The fax was soon leaked to news outlets, and went ‘viral’. American Airlines’ parent company, AMR Corporation’s board quickly took action, and went the extra mile to show their LGBTI employees and customers that they had made a mistake that would not happen again. In so doing, American Airlines was one of the first companies in the US in acknowledging LGBTI’s.

While in 2017 we do not expect people to imagine HIV/AIDs is spread through contact with LGBTI people, it will be an understatement to say that there is huge stigma associated with being LGBTI in Kenya, and unquestionably so in the workplaces. According to a 2015 study conducted by Hivos, Sullivan Marketing & Workplace Pride on the state of LGBT workplace inclusion among multinational businesses in Kenya, the Colorful Workplaces Report revealed that although the companies could have created ‘policy’ environments for LGBTI self-disclosure, there were still concerns that LGBTI-identifying employees would be treated differently by their colleagues, would reduce their chances of career opportunities and would affect the working relationship with others. Some of the respondents were:

 “If they find hostility I will choose not to hire them. What happens later if we have hired them?”

“A man – who really dresses like a woman, may turn away customers who don’t approve of such. In such a situation what do I do as an employer?”

 “LGBTI persons scare others away; some straight people fear they might try to change them”

Looking at the UN Standards of Conduct for Business

To help companies’ better tackle LGBT discrimination and create safe and welcoming environments, the United Nations released a Standards of Conduct for Business this September 26th in New York at Microsoft’s office. The five Standards are:

Respect human rights

All businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights — including the rights of LGBTI people —in their operations and business relationships. Businesses should develop policies, exercise due diligence, and, in cases where their decisions or activities have adversely affected the enjoyment of human rights, remediate such impacts. Businesses should also establish mechanisms to monitor and communicate about their compliance with human rights standards.

Eliminate discrimination

Businesses should ensure that there is no discrimination in their recruitment, employment, working conditions, benefits, respect for privacy, or treatment of harassment

Provide support

Businesses are expected to provide a positive, affirmative environment within their organization so that LGBTI employees can work with dignity and without stigma.

Prevent other human rights violations

Businesses should ensure that they do not discriminate against LGBTI suppliers or distributors, or against LGBTI customers in accessing the company’s products and/or services. In their business relationships, businesses should also ensure that business partners do not discriminate. Where a business partner discriminates against LGBTI people, businesses should use their leverage to seek to prevent that act of discrimination.

Act in the public sphere.

Businesses are encouraged to use their leverage to contribute to stopping human rights abuses in the countries in which they operate. In doing so, they should consult closely with local communities and organizations to identify what constructive approaches businesses can take in contexts where legal frameworks and existing practices violate the human rights of LGBTI people. While this is recommended, Kenyan businesses could start by acting within the four walls of their organization first, and then incrementally take a public position.

The time is ripe for companies, especially those in Kenya,  to be catalysts of social change inside-out, not only to comply with the UN Standards but because diverse teams perform better, when employees are themselves at work, they are more creative and more loyal; and it’s the morally right thing to do.

Our guest blogger, Levis Maina Nderitu is the CEO of Sullivan Marketing, Founder of Sullivan Reed Society, Mandela Washington Fellow, Out & Equal Global fellow and currently a Dreilinden Scholar at the Erasmus University Rotterdam based at The Hague.