Being Subtle and Flexible: LGBT Support in a Multinational Context

6 mins

How can multinational enterprises effectively support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans...

How can multinational enterprises effectively support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) employees in contexts that require sensitivity to local cultures and legislation? Being subtle and flexible is the answer, a new study suggests.


“Allyship” is about how individuals and organisations support disadvantaged groups to end discrimination, inequality, and exclusion of these groups. An example of such support is an organisational policy related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) employees. But what do organisations do in a context where there are different barriers in place that obstruct the provision of LGBT employee support? This is a particularly prominent issue in multinational enterprises (MNEs), which operate in countries where sexual orientation and gender identity differences may be a cultural taboo or even criminalised. How do MNE subsidiaries manage the tension between LGBT policies mandated by their headquarters and an adversarial host country context? A study recently published in Human Resource Management (HRM) examined this issue.


“This is important to study because it’s a problem that managers in multinational enterprises face in many parts of the world. The headquarters of multinationals like to standardise their policies and business strategies. But the problem is that the world is a heterogeneous place. Every country is different. So LGBT policies in host countries need to be tailored to local conditions. The question is, how do multinationals do that?”, said Christiaan Röell, the lead author of the study and a lecturer in International Business at the University of New South Wales, Australia.


To answer this question, the authors conducted interviews over a number of years as part of a qualitative case study of twelve Western European and US MNEs that had established a subsidiary in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. They found that in many cases the MNEs’ public claims regarding LGBT-related allyship were not effectively translated into their subsidiaries’ practices.


“All of the companies that participated in our research promoted publicly LGBT rights in their home countries and countries that are more supportive. However, the majority of these companies actually did very little to support LGBT employees. They gave all sorts of reasons about why they could not implement LGBT policies, and it was often about upsetting governments, customers and local communities. Some of the companies simply said, “we don’t have any of the LGBT employees here in our organisation”. So they were kind of denying existence of LGBT employees. This is surprising, given that these are very large organisations - they have anywhere between five hundred and ten thousand employees – and the other companies told us that many LGBT people like to apply to multinationals because they say on their corporate websites that they are very open to, and always promote, LGBT individuals”, said Röell.


“Previous LGBT-related research was in supportive contexts where there are supportive laws, supportive discourses and policies. However, in this paper we explore a context which is antagonistic to LGBT equality in the cultural setting due to religious dogma and unsupportive laws. But even in this setting, the paper discovers something of a surprising process by which multinational enterprises continue to support LGBT inclusion, their safety and well-being in the workplace”, said Mustafa Özbilgin, one of the study authors and Professor of Human Resource Management at Brunel University, United Kingdom.


The surprising finding shows that subtle practices can be the answer for supporting LGBT employees in an adversarial context: 


“We have very rich data to show how human resource practitioners in a very dire, toxic and antagonistic context make this possible through subtle mechanisms”, said Özbilgin.


“You have to do it very discreetly, very subtly. I think that's the core contribution of our research”, said Röell.


The study introduces a new concept of “covert allyship”, which refers to a strategy for tacitly supporting LGBT inclusion in contexts where LGBT policies meet adversarial responses due to existing norms and regulations. 


“The concept of covert allyship is generalisable to the human rights context at large. This concept captures a new space where allyship cannot be straightforward because of external conditions and repression that those who exercise allyship would otherwise face. This connects to how human rights develop and spread, because you often have phases of progress and phases of regress that change over time, until finally these human rights issues are more comprehensively addressed. So the human rights context is a larger context where our study theoretically matters”, said Felix Arndt, one of the study authors and Professor and John F Wood Chair in Entrepreneurship at the University of Guelph, Canada. 


So how can MNEs adopt practices that build subtle yet effective LGBT-supportive approaches in contexts that require sensitivity to local cultures and legislation? The study offers practical implications for human resource practitioners about how allyship for LGBT issues is undertaken covertly and shows that MNEs can draw on various practices to advocate and transfer LGBT policies to their subsidiaries despite adversarial conditions in the host country.


“HR practitioners in multinational enterprises walk a tightrope between progress and tradition. They have what they learned from HR policy and practice from universities, which is quite progressive. It's about inclusion, it's about diversity, equality. In the West, when we study HR, we have very explicit theories of allyship, which is loud and proud. But in this context it won't work, it will be counterproductive. When HR practitioners go to the workplaces, they hit the market conditions and also contextual aspects such as culture and religious dogma, and they struggle to reconcile these differences. HR practitioners need to recognise the local conditions and any idiosyncratic understandings of HR management, and to prioritise human rights as one of the key virtues in exploring practices that would improve human rights for every individual. Internationally, half of the countries have recognised equality for sexual orientation and gender identity, and half of them are struggling with it. And this moment of struggle for this group is a human rights struggle recognised by the United Nations. So HR has a role to play in this regard and it can make a major difference if they develop strategies custom made to fit local conditions rather than to try and assert evidence-based strategies developed in the Global North to the conditions in the Global South. It won’t work”, said Özbilgin.


“You must localise, you must adapt. There were a couple of really interesting practices that the multinationals in our study did to actively support LGBT employees. One of the things these multinationals are good at is organisational learning. So, for instance, if they establish a successful initiative in a subsidiary somewhere in the Middle East or in South America, they can share these best practices with other subsidiaries around the world, so they can learn from their different sister organisations. In addition, these companies appointed a local diversity manager that oversaw the different initiatives that they had. They also did awareness training and they specifically emphasised that this training must be adapted to the local context. You know, it’s often easier to start talking about gender diversity or human rights more broadly before you get into the what's locally seen as quite a controversial topic”, said Röell.


Despite all these efforts, the topic of LGBT creates a lot of division within the organisations:


“You have some more liberal and open and some more conservative employees. So these companies also mentioned it’s important to have clear and strict systems in place to prevent microaggressions, harassments and even violence towards LGBT employees. So it’s a work in progress. Even the companies that didn't do anything, they all told me they'd like to do more for these employees, but it’s just very difficult in the current climate because of the culture and also regulations”, said Röell.


Contact Christiaan Röell at


Read the full article here.


Written by Jelena Petrovic, Knowledge Transfer Editor of HRM and Associate Professor at the University of Southampton Business School,


HRM is a Financial Times Top 50 Business Journal published by Wiley.