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Sochi sponsors should follow AT&T’s lead and speak up for LGBT rights: MacDonald

The Olympic Rings displayed near Sochi, Russia (Photo: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty)

The Olympic Rings displayed near Sochi, Russia (Photo: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty)

The business community can (and should) follow AT&T’s lead in speaking out in solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. On Feb. 4, the company’s Consumer Blog featured an entry entitled “A Time for Pride and Equality.” “We support LGBT equality globally and we condemn violence, discrimination and harassment targeted against LGBT individuals everywhere. Russia’s law is harmful to LGBT individuals and families, and it’s harmful to a diverse society.”

Russia’s anti-gay laws and attitudes are repugnant. Russian President Vladimiar Putin clearly wants hosting the Olympics to signal that Russia is a proud and globally significant nation once again. But what it’s really doing is making the country look like an oversized banana republic, with values that don’t befit a serious world power. Putin is a man of the times all right—as long as the times you’re thinking of are the 19th century.

We’ve long known that discrimination is bad business. Discriminating against talented employees or paying customers just because of their sexual orientation is plain stupidity. And every decent person knows in their heart of hearts that such discrimination is immoral. This is not something where reasonable people can agree to disagree. There simply is no argument in favour of holding someone’s sexual orientation against them, let alone subjecting them to violence.

I wrote previously that I think the International Olympic Committee and corporate sponsors are in a no-win situation. These organizations clearly can’t condone Russia’s brutish stance on homosexuality. But a boycott isn’t necessarily in anyone’s interest either—it is arguably better to allow Russia a moment in the limelight, precisely because some of that light will shine into the dark corner that is Russia’s treatment of its gay citizens.

But every corporation has a voice. Olympic sponsors and non-sponsors alike have enormous capacity to get its message out. Some of them might lose business over taking a stand on what is for some, regrettably, a hot-button issue. But the obligation to pursue profits has limits. And I detect one of them here. Some have speculated that AT&T’s decision to take a stand is, whatever motivated it, smart marketing. And that may be. If a company happens to benefit from doing the right thing, we should note the benefit, but admire the good deed.

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education and Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.