Monday 5 December 2016

The chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores has emerged as an unlikely voice for gay rights after the Arkansas state governor heeded his call to reject a much-criticised bill that opponents said sanctions discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Published 06/04/2015 | 02:30

The chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores has emerged as an unlikely voice for gay rights after the Arkansas state governor heeded his call to reject a much-criticised bill that opponents said sanctions discrimination against gays and lesbians.

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A day later, Indiana governor Mike Pence signed clarifications to his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination after a firestorm of criticism from firms and civil rights groups.

The decision by Wal-Mart's Doug McMillon to speak out against the "religious freedom" bill reflects more than a decade of evolving policy by the retailer on the issue of gay rights, and follows a pattern of taking stands on some social issues when it makes business sense.

"Every day, in our stores, we see firsthand the benefits diversity and inclusion have on our associates, customers and communities we serve," McMillon said in a statement on Tuesday asking for a veto of the Arkansas bill.

That was seen as a major factor behind Republican governor Asa Hutchinson's decision a day later to ask lawmakers in Wal-Mart's home state for revisions.

Ranked America's 29th most powerful business figure by Forbes, McMillon (49), whose company employs 2.2 million, has clout.

Wal-Mart's action comes against the backdrop of other major companies taking stands on political and social issues, with mixed results.

General Electric chief executive Jeff Immelt joined a growing chorus of executives expressing concerns about the Indiana bill's impact on gays. And Starbucks recently cancelled a programme in which baristas were invited to engage customers on conversations about race, making it a cautionary tale for companies looking to wade into controversial issues.

Wal-Mart - where McMillon started off in a summer job unloading trucks - has been selective in the issues it tackles in public.

For years it has resisted calls to pay a "living wage" and its move in February to raise pay to at least $9 an hour was viewed by many analysts as driven by competition for workers in a tight market as much as social concerns. Advocates of the 'living wage' want $15 per hour.

One former Wal-Mart executive, who now consults for the company, saw parallels between McMillon's show of support for LGBT rights and a push a decade ago on sustainability under then chief executive Lee Scott.

Mr Scott told people to find ways to use less energy and cut out waste but wanted new initiatives to be profitable, the former executive said. Ultimately, the stand on LGBT rights is about protecting the business, said the former executive, who declined to be quoted because of his continuing ties to Wal-Mart .

A majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, although a substantial minority still oppose it, according to polls. Allowing its home state to be seen as anti-gay could hinder Wal-Mart's ability to recruit executives and hurt its image generally, argued Deena Fidas, a director at the Human Rights Campaign, which rates companies on their LGBT policies.

"It comes down to the issue of economics here. No one wants the stain of discrimination on their headquarters state," she said.

"Their story is one of leading in some cases and in other cases following industry peers and the trends of the Fortune 500 broadly," Ms Fidas said.

Doug McMillon

Irish Independent

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