HBS Professor of Management Practice Bill George discusses the US Supreme Court decision to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, also known as DOMA, and the role of business and business leaders in social change.
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Our guest today is Bill George, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, where he teaches about leadership. He's the former chairman and chief executive officer of Medtronic, and author of four best selling books on the topic of leadership. Bill, thanks for joining us.
Nice to be here, thank you.
We’re going to talk about the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, also known as DOMA; something that you've written about and commented on a lot over the past few months. The Defense of Marriage Act was signed by Bill Clinton in 1996 and on June 26, the US Supreme Court struck down section three of DOMA, and by doing so awarded to married same sex couples the federal benefits that had previously been limited to opposite sex couples. They didn't address section two. Section two is the one that allows the states to deny recognition of same sex marriages that originated in states where that's legalized. So there's some unfinished business there, and we can talk about what that means to business leaders and others, but what exactly did this Supreme Court accomplish with the decision that they made on June 26?
I believe this is very important step to repeal a wrong. In fact President Clinton himself has said one of the most shameful things he did in his presidency was support – or sign the Defense of Marriage Act. Rights for all people let's talk about gay people, lesbians, transgender, is the civil rights issue of our time. I was very involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. This is our civil rights issue today. And I think any corporation, any organization, certainly any law that discriminates, for any reason, is wrong. Because I believe that discrimination for one reason gives license to discrimination for any reason. So if I can discriminate against someone because they're gay, then they can discriminate against me because I'm white, or African American or Hispanic or whatever. And I just think any form discrimination is wrong, needs to be eliminated from our society. Now the Supreme Court didn’t go far enough, but this issue is moving very rapidly and I've been pleasantly surprised how far it's come in just the last year.
BK: And Minnesota in fact has made a ruling on this recently, the Minnesota Senate –
BG: Yeah, that's a big breakthrough. A year ago, gee it was just a year ago, the tide was moving in favor of passing a constitutional amendment in liberal Minnesota that would have made it illegal for all time for same sex couples to be treated like opposite sex couples with regard to marriage. Six to nine months after that happened we now have the law has been repealed, or changed, to make same sex marriage legal in Minnesota so it's a great breakthrough.
BK: And you wrote an impassioned op-ed in the Star Tribune about that.. so you must have some clout, because -
BG: I don’t know about any clout I got, but I aimed this at corporate CEOs because many of them were hiding in the shadows, and I said you know, Minnesota's a town of fortune five hundred CEOs, and I said: ‘you guys need to step up right now, and declare yourself, not just as individuals, which several had already done and given money, but declare your company, because this is unhealthy for your companies.'
If you create an environment that’s not accepting and welcoming, not just accepting, welcoming, of all people regardless of differences no one’s going to want to work there. I mean for instance, if there was a corporation that wanted to hire me, and I’m heterosexual, a nice family and all, but it was an environment that discriminated against gays I wouldn’t work there.
BK: So there were 300+ CEOs across the country who signed on in support of repealing section three. If I happen to be – and we talked about section two and the fact that that sort of puts the of the ball back in the court of the states in some ways, to interpret this in their own way – If I’m a CEO in a state that hasn’t legalized same sex marriage, what should I be thinking about?
BG: It’s pretty simple. Because what's gonna happen to those states that do discriminate, they’re gonna have trouble attracting business to their state, and retaining the businesses they have. Among the younger generation, our MBAs here at Harvard, for instance, it's a non-issue. The idea that you would discriminate is kind of absurd to them. And so I think the states that are lagging behind are gonna have to give way and change their laws, otherwise they’ll find themselves losing companies and they'll find themselves losing business.
BK: Now, most companies operate across state lines. Do you see – or maybe it's already happening, maybe you’re seeing it already, you know, corporate leaders who are trying to apply pressure in multiple places around the country where you know these laws have been passed yet?
BG: Well they have employees, certainly they are. Because, or else they’ll, you know corporations are free to go wherever they wanna go and they’re gonna go to the place that allows them to attract the best employers. And my whole argument is: you can’t attract the best employees heterosexual, homosexual, I don't care, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, unless you're open to all people. If your company discriminates you’re not gonna attract the best employees regardless of their orientation, or regardless of their religious faith, or regardless of their ethnic origin. Corporations today must be totally non discriminatory. In fact, I got very upset with the military, one of our great organizations; during WWII they were the first ones that integrated. You know, they provided opportunities, and then for them to be so late to the party on this. I teach authentic leadership at the school and the idea to say don't ask don't tell - and I had a number of military officers who had dropped out of the military and came here as MBAs, really outstanding military veterans, but they felt like they couldn't continue living a lie in the military and that's a disgrace. And fortunately the military's heard that and changed.
BK: So in your experience, is this unusual, where business leaders would step into what's essentially a civil rights issue, and put their muscle behind trying to make change? Did that happen, for instance, you know, in the 1960s?
BG: You bet. In fact, much more in the 1960s. When we had all the riots following Martin Luther King Junior's assassination - we had huge race riots around the country because African Americans were rightly very upset that their presumed leader had been assassinated. And corporations get really serious about this. In places like Detroit and South Central LA and Newark, and in places where they were having riots, business leaders across the country came together to step up and said this is not society we know and love, we gotta change.
BK: But there's some backlash that comes with that. You mentioned to me earlier before we started recording, that when you wrote that op ed in the Star Tribune, you heard from people.
BG: I got some wonderful notes from people but also there’s some of them you wouldn’t want to read. I’ll tell you I wouldn’t quote them to you on the air or even privately, they were so gross. And so yeah, there's a lot of prejudice. There’s a lot of prejudice about everything out there but it's not okay. But I’ve tried to reach out and talk personally to people that sent me letters that were unhappy. Say: what is it that upset you and let's talk about. So I think it's good to have a conversation that people have certain views that they need to be informed by facts.
BK: So as somebody who teaches corporate leaders about authentic leadership, what advice would you give to a CEO who is, you know, who obviously is thinking about this in the context of the backlash for the brand that they represent, the reputation of the organization?
BG: Well clearly - General Mills, Ken Powell - who actually used to be lead director of Medtronic after I left the board - did this. He declared General Mills to be supporting, very strongly same sex marriage. And he went right on the line for it, and there was a group organized, to boycott General Mills cereals. So, ‘I’m not gonna have any more Cinnamon Toast Crunch, or you know, Wheaties, I can’t get my Wheaties anymore.’ And actually ironically, everyone heard about the boycott, but the reality is there was another organization, a counter-movement organized, and there were ten times as many people signed up for that, to support what General Mills had done. So that’s courage. But that's what CEOs need to have. Many CEOs would say ‘this isn't really my issue, I’m just worried about my business.’ I would say this is your issue and it is part of your business, and by the way every single employee and every single customer of yours is watching to see what stand you take. If you're on the wrong side of the issue you may not have a boycott organized, but you may find yourself losing support from your employees and your customers, and what could be more important? Say you have religious views, which doesn’t accept this. That's OK, but you don't impose that on your company or your organization, you rise above that and you separate and say well, this is my personal view – that’s not my religious view by the way –but if it is, you need to separate that from your role as a public figure leading a major corporation.
BK: As a result of repealing DOMA, obviously there are tax implications and things. Any obvious downsides that you see for operating companies?
BG: Well if there are, and I’m not sure what they would be - paying out benefits to same sex couples? – you just step up to those things. They’re minor in the greater scheme of things for your organization. I must say, just for full disclosure, not be hypocritical, back in 1996 or 1997, when Medtronic changed its policies to give benefits to same sex couples, we also did the same thing for opposite sex couples, if they could demonstrate that they had had a long term committed relationship. I think commitment is the idea.
BK: And that was pretty far in advance of this, so you were –
BG: Yeah but it wasn’t advanced enough. It was 1996. I mean it should’ve been ten years before.
BK: Bill, thanks for much for joining us.
BG: Thank you for having me.