Nike announced yesterday it had ended its business relationship with boxer Manny Pacquiao, following the latter's public anti-gay remarks. Campaigning for the Senate in the Philippines, Pacquiao called people in gay relationships "worse than animals" during an interview with a local broadcaster. He later apologized. 

The apology did not prevent Nike from dumping him. "We find Manny Pacquiao's comments abhorrent," Nike said in a statement, reported by The Associated Press. "Nike strongly opposes discrimination of any kind and has a long history of supporting and standing up for the rights of the LGBT community."

The brouhaha provides a timely excuse for examining what your business is doing--publicly and privately--in support of LGBT causes. In fact, the topic of corporate LGBT activism happened to be a matter of recent public debate before the Nike-Pacquiao news. For example, The Economist has devoted this entire week to an open, online discussion devoted to the question: "Should businesses work to advance the rights of LGBT people broadly, rather than focusing only on their own employees?" Sixty-six percent of readers have voted yes. 

In addition, Stanford's Graduate School of Business recently announced the launch of its LGBT Executive Leadership Program, giving professionals identifying as LGBT the chance to connect with each other and improve their leadership skills. There are 50 slots for the week-long summer program, which costs $12,000. According to co-directors Sarah Soule and Thomas S. Wurster, the time is ripe for such a program because there remains "a huge under-representation of LGBT leaders," says Soule.

Specifically, Apple's CEO Tim Cook remains the only prominent example of an LGBT leader at a major company. And he didn't come out until 2014, after he was promoted to the position. The reality of most workplaces--no matter how progressive their policies are on paper--is that publicly identifying yourself as LGBT isn't easy. It isn't easy if you're doing it to claim an employee benefit. And it isn't easy if you're trying to be honest about what you did over the weekend.

Just how profound is the problem? According to a 2014 poll by the Human Rights Campaign, 53 percent of LGBT people are still in the closet at work. What's more, 35 percent of LGBT employees feel compelled to fib about their personal lives while at work. The reasons are varied, including "because it's nobody's business" (64 percent); "possibly making people feel uncomfortable" (38 percent); "possibility of being stereotyped" (36 percent); "possibility of losing connections with coworkers" (31 percent); "management will think talking about my sexual orientation is unprofessional" (23 percent); and "may not be considered for management opportunities" (23 percent).

Stanford's program is aimed at countering these feelings of discomfort. Of course, even if Stanford sends 50 stellar leaders back into the workforce in early August, the transition won't be easy. Jennifer Brown, an out LGBT consultant and thought leader on inclusion in the workplace, sees the reality everyday in her clientele. Her eponymous company provides diversity and inclusion training to large employers. She works directly with senior leaders at those companies. "I cannot tell you how many executives I meet who still cover their lives and have made up an entire false narrative about their family life," she says. 

This reflects what many LGBT employees have to confront, even in an era when employers are striving through policies--and the termination of high-profile marketing relationships--to create inclusive cultures. In the 2016 Corporate Equality Index from HRC, a record 407 businesses achieved a top rating of 100 percent for their policies. In the CEI's first year in 2002, only 13 businesses achieved a top score of 100 percent. As recently as the 2012 CEI, 189 businesses earned the vaunted 100 percent score.

Helpful as they are, the policies and perfect scores don't always filter down to the interactions employees face in their day-to-day lives or travels. "I have a husband and I wear a wedding ring. I am asked almost every week, as I travel around the world, about my wife," says Todd Sears, founder of Out Leadership, an LGBT inclusion consultancy that works with employers in the financial industry. The upside of the questions, he adds, is that LGBT leaders gain valuable experience in negotiating awkward or ambiguous circumstances. Experiences like these fill them with empathy and make them better at understanding different perspectives.

So if you're rethinking your own company's level of LGBT policies and activism in the wake of the Nike-Pacquiao news, keep in mind that your culture's openness to LGBT employees is more than just a rating in an index, or a public stance against a celebrity's remarks. Employers will only reap the benefits of diversity policies and programs when employees feel safe revealing their identities. That is, when it's less of a "reveal," and more of what an identity should ideally be: something you stay true to, no matter who's asking, and where they're asking it.

Published on: Feb 18, 2016