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THE NOT-SO DIVERSE CARIBBEAN WORKPLACE

By Francis Wade

 

Saturday/Sunday, January 3-4, 2008.

 

For over two centuries, Blacks, women, Indians, Chinese, Rastafarians, Amerindians and others were systematically discriminated against in the Caribbean. Over time, a greater tolerance of differences has subsumed much of this prejudice and the society is demonstrably better as a result.

 

The issue of gays in our workplaces is one that we would just rather not talk about in public. This is the topic that we hope would just go away and leave us alone. Most of us in the Caribbean experience deep feelings ranging from hostility to sympathy on the topic.

It's something I should probably not be writing about.

For a moment, however, I set aside my fears to deal with the issue from a business point of view, and I trust that you'll be able to set aside some of your own strong feelings to do the same. If not, I understand (or at least, I think I do.)

I can say with some confidence that this issue is not going away, and that part of being a good manager or executive is to foresee a future that is likely to happen. For those companies that do business outside the region, that may be a current reality, and I'd love to hear your feedback if that's indeed the case.

Global opinion is growing: the
Caribbean
is increasingly seen as
one of the least inclusive, intolerant and unsupportive regions of
the world as it relates to the matter of “differences.” The term
“difference” is a fairly new one to the
Caribbean
workplace and it
generally applies to obvious aspects such as race, gender, age,
religion, physical ability, etc. However, our international
reputation is largely being tainted by our strident relationship
to gays and homosexuality.

By extension,
Caribbean
companies and executives are not exactly
seen as world leaders in the context of business tolerance.

The fact is that many of our territories’ populations have relatively little day-to-day exposure to people of other races, nationalities and beliefs. The tendency is to speak single languages as relatively few of our companies conduct business in other countries, even within the region.

 

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend a few nights in a hotel in the vicinity of Times Square, New York,  and I was reminded of what it was like to be surrounded by people of backgrounds different from mine and languages from all corners of the globe. We simply don't have the kind of diversity that is influencing the way the world's most admired companies relate to people who are "different."

It might be no mistake that the CEO of Jamaica’s largest company, the Government, recently announced to the international public that he is unwilling to accept gays at the highest levels of his organization.

When asked in a recent BBC interview if he would allow gays to
take up senior government positions, the Prime Minister of
Jamaica
, the Hon. Bruce Golding, replied emphatically, "Not in my
cabinet!"

 

I might be wrong in thinking that he is not the only CEO/Prime Minister/Chairman to have these views in the region. While he may be the only CEO with these views, the effect of his words are far-reaching, as presumably they must have some impact on the entire Government of Jamaica, which coincidentally is the largest employer in Jamaica. (The link to the interview is given in the next section.)

Clearly, his idea of an inclusive, diverse workplace has its
limits.

If he is seen as a typical representative of a “regional CEO,” what are the pros and cons to companies when executives adopt this approach either publicly or privately? What does it mean for business and what is its impact on stock-holders, employees, customers and other stakeholders? Even though the societal impacts are many, I will only focus on the impact his words and our attitudes, may have on the financial success of our corporations.

Enlightenment Under Pressure

Recently, Diageo Plc., the owners of the Red Stripe brand in Jamaica, withdrew their sponsorship from local dance hall events stating that they would no longer sponsor events that allowed or encouraged violent lyrics directed against women and homosexuals.

In
Jamaica
, this withdrawal was met with derision and many felt that little or nothing would be lost at the end of the day. The general feeling was that there would be other sponsors.

Diageo, in its role as a progressive, global company, had no choice but to disassociate itself from any lack of tolerance. In their 2008 Corporate Citizenship Report, they reported that "over the past four years, the proportion of women in senior management – a key diversity indicator – has risen from 20% in 2003 to 25% in 2008."

"In the
USA
, Diageo scored 95% in the 2008 Corporate Equality Index. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, part of the USA’s largest advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT)
Americans, produces the index annually and ranks corporations based on their policies regarding their gay and lesbian employees and the GLBT community."

Diageo prides itself on being a company that lives by its values, one of which clearly states, “WE VALUE EACH OTHER – we seek and
benefit from diverse people and perspectives.”

This might all be corporate propaganda but the fact remains that they are taking actions to ensure that diversity is tolerated as endorsed by their publicly stated commitments.

I imagine that their example has served as quiet encouragement for
other multinational companies conducting business in the region.
Can a local CEO of one of these companies “pull a Bruce Golding”
and decide to establish a local diversity policy that violates the
company’s international policies?

It is just not likely to happen.

I could, however, imagine that local executives may decide that they know better than those folks in the overseas parent company and will seek to follow the letter of the policy while neglecting the spirit. They might determine that it is better for business to do as little as possible to encourage diversity of that particular kind.

I predict, however, that
Caribbean
branches of progressive multinationals will not be allowed to be different for very long. A CEO who insists that he is, “different from CEO’s in other countries” might very well find himself on the receiving end of a rigorous bout of diversity training along with a stiff warning.

In essence, he will be told to conform or else. Diageo and other
global companies that are successful and widely admired are well-
known for their best practices in this area. As a result, they are
unlikely to retreat from the strides they have already made in
order to accommodate a handful of executives in the
Caribbean
who
think differently.

Apart from the global companies in the region, there are many more
regional companies that conduct business with global companies.
While Caribbean companies might argue that their internal practices are no-one’s business but their own, recent history shows that large companies are imposing greater requirements on firms that do business with them than ever before.

It is not too hard to imagine that a firm would be reluctant to conduct business with a
Caribbean
company that has revealed itself to be lead by bigots.

For example, I imagine that the Prime Minister’s emphatic words
instantly closed all sorts of doors to business opportunities around the world. Owners of gay businesses probably took note of his stance.

Two years ago, I had my first inkling that this may occur when friends of mine living abroad started to decline invitations to visit my wife and myself in
Jamaica
.

They were not declining because the timing was bad or because they
were short of money. Instead, they were declining because of our
prejudice.

As one friend put it, “I don’t like
Jamaica
… my brother and his
partner (who are gay) can’t even come… they are my family… they
can be killed down there… why should I come?” Another said “I
only came to your wedding because of you… I would never come there
again.” Yet another said “I’ll never come… you have to come visit
me... I know about the homophobia there.”

In other words, they were declining to do business with Jamaicans
because of our perceived prejudice. I sensed that for them, their
boycott was similar to avoiding a pleasure trip to
South Africa

while apartheid was still in force. In their case, the thousands
of dollars they might have spent in
Jamaica would instead go to
Hawaii, Mexico or Fiji
.

From a business perspective, there might be an incentive for
executives to govern their companies in a way that encourages
compatibility with the global business-space. At the moment, a company or country that declares itself to be openly bigoted runs the risk of isolating itself from the much larger, influential group of companies that espouse global best-practices.

Many in the
Caribbean
would say with a touch of defiance, “If ah
so, ah so” (transl. “If that is the way it needs to be, so let it be.”) They would argue that the chips should fall where they
may and that they are able to live with the consequent loss in
business.

How their shareholders might feel about all this could be another
matter.

Tolerance and Diversity as a Profit-growing Policy

Although the external pressure is likely to increase, there are also practical consequences to be incurred by local companies that
limit diversity by demonstrating prejudice against gays. These
include:

1. Limits on Creativity
Recent studies by Richard Florida (author of The Rise of the Creative Class) have made a clear connection between a city’s “tolerance level” and its economic growth. Apparently, creativity in business requires an ability to allow differences of opinion to flourish and turn into business opportunities. Tolerance of homosexuals is one way of measuring the degree to which differences are encouraged.

Florida
’s heavily data-driven books are being used by cities and
even countries to guide their thinking about economic growth.

2. Clarity of Company Policy vs. Personal Feelings
The ramifications of the Prime Minister’s words are quite unclear
and the resulting confusion should give any CEO pause for thought
before making such “policy” statements in public.

One interpretation is that Mr. Golding was merely playing politics
and lining up voter support. If that is the case, then it hints to
a propensity for governments to attack small, weak and virtually
invisible groups for their own political gain.

Another interpretation would be that Permanent Secretaries and
other Government officials should take his stance as official
policy and not allow homosexuals to work too closely to the Prime
Minister or become a public figure that works in the Government.
Mr. Golding and his executives (the Cabinet) should be shielded
from gays that might be working in the government or conducting
business with the government.

Yet another interpretation would be that the Government is not a
welcome place for homosexuals and that they are being discouraged
from trying to begin a career in the public service. By this
logic, managers in the Government should seek to actively root out
homosexuals once they have been identified. Or, to put it more
mildly, homosexuals “should be encouraged to pursue other
careers.”

A fourth interpretation would be that anyone who declares him or
herself to be homosexual and happens to be a Cabinet member or
occupying a critical Government position, should immediately
resign to avoid being fired.

It is all very confusing, and the nature of his statement leads me
to think that his announcement was not pre-meditated (but of
course, I could be wrong.) If these statements were unplanned,
then it would mean that the Prime Minister announced a substantial
policy based on his personal feelings and opinions.

He would hardly be the first CEO to do so.

Yet, this is always a risky strategy and one that usually leads to
more harm than good. On this particular topic, his utterances on
tape and his subsequent letter to the press clarifying his
position are likely to have created a great deal of trouble for
gay, Jamaicans who work for the Government. All of a
sudden, they now find themselves with the wrong kind of diversity.
They are probably wondering to themselves, “Now what?”

Managers who suspect that an employee is gay might have the same
confusion – should they discourage the employee from continued
employment or not? Does the talent, performance or the commitment
of the employee have a role to play in all this? Is it just a
matter of time before all homosexuals are eliminated from the
civil service?

3. Fighting the Inevitable

Throughout the history of the Caribbean workplace, the exclusion
of a group has always been a tactic that management has used to
maintain power and to drive fear into the hearts of the workers.
Modern management best practices dictate that empowerment of
workers requires creating an environment that encourages
alternative thinking.

In some ways, we have learned that to disagree or dislike someone
does not necessarily equate to an inability to work together in
order to create profits.

It is predictable that the same will occur with homosexuals,
despite what many of us might feel, and in spite of the laws are
currently on the books.

To argue that it will not happen here is to join company with
countries that simply do not share our democratic ideals
or enjoy the fruits of open markets. We are societies that are
built on the idea of giving all of our citizens an opportunity and
it is not likely that Mr. Golding’s sentiments will set off a new
discriminatory trend within the corporate Caribbean.

If anything, the Caribbean culture is prone to celebrate the small
farmer, small business-person, small trader, etc. We like to
support those we perceive to be defenseless against victimization.

Perhaps it is not too much to imagine that we will come to realize
that gay Caribbean people are at the moment a small, mostly
invisible, scared, victimized group that is frequently attacked
verbally (and sometimes physically) by our singers, preachers and
others. Maybe we might one day rally to the defense of their
rights following the trend of virtually all the democracies that
we admire around the world.

In my opinion, although the Jamaican society may never condone the
lifestyle, full acceptance of gays as members of the society is
inevitable. As good business-people, we need to plan for this
eventuality and prepare our companies for the global mainstream.

To avoid doing so is to exercise poor judgment and irresponsible
governance.

Here is a link to the portion of Bruce Golding's interview in
which he answers the questions I referenced regarding Jamaica's treatment of gays:
  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cQx-zmHgg8

 

Francis Wade is a management consultant based in Kingston, Jamaica. He blogs at The 2Time Management System

 

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