By Melissa J. Anderson

Recently North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue told MSNBC that the state’s ban on gay marriage would hurt its business environment. The Hampton Rhodes Pilot quoted:

“This is a big day for North Carolina. Chuck, this hurts our brand,” Perdue said. “Our state has been known around America and around the world as a progressive leader, as an inviting state, the hub of business and opportunity. This is bad for business.”

In fact, she’s not the only one. Many of the state’s corporate leaders have been outspoken on North Carolina’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which passed last week. For example, as the Advocate mentioned recently, “Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, has compared the amendment to the Jim Crow laws, and Cathy Bessant, technology chief at Bank of America, taped a video saying that the amendment would signal a ‘backward-looking economy.’”

These are strong words, and for these business leaders to come out so strongly in support marriage equality in a fairly conservative state, it no doubt took a lot of courage as well. Does the fact that some – like Bessant – have related their public stance on these values to business indicate that they have their company’s support or speak for their company? For that matter, when a CEO makes his or her personal beliefs public – like Rogers, are they ever separate from his or her company’s cultural values?

Leveraging Clout

At the recent Out on the Street conference at Bank of America in New York City, several business leaders spoke about their support for LGBT inclusiveness. For example, Brian Moynihan, Bank of America’s CEO, said that he wanted to make sure the company was a place where employees could come to work without leaving part of themselves at the door.

But this is a discussion of talent management, not a political statement. On the other hand, when Lloyd Blankfein appeared in a video proclaiming his support for marriage equality he equated it with good business sense, the situation was explicitly tied to politics. The Goldman Sachs CEO also signed an open letter on the same subject in 2011. The open letter, signed by 25 top business leaders in New York explained how marriage equality was critical for the competitiveness of the state, in remaining an attractive location for the best and brightest.

“Increasingly, in an age where talent determines the economic winners, great states and cities must demonstrate a commitment to creating an open, healthy and equitable environment in which to live and work.

“This is why it is so important that New York State grant full rights to all of its citizens by passing marriage equality.”

In this case, business leaders used their clout to support an issue that is personal, professional, and political. That might not be too difficult in a location like New York City, where same sex marriage had the support of the majority, and ultimately was legalized last year.

Leadership and Values

The situation is different in North Carolina, where support for LGBT inclusiveness or marriage equality is not as mainstream. In fact, at the OOTS event, Blankfein said that it made sense for him to voice his support publicly, in that it was in light with the firm’s values and business objectives. But he could see how it wouldn’t have been as easy for someone else – based on geography or industry.

The Advocate featured an interview with Nation Hahn, director of online engagement for Protect Families NC, on the subject. “North Carolina companies are not used to speaking out publicly,” he said. The article continues:

“He said that from the perspective of those fighting the amendment, when a corporate leader speaks, even as an individual, it still carries significant weight. And notably, far more members of the North Carolina business community have spoken against Amendment One than in support of it.

“’We’ve received incredible support and press based off the business leaders,’ said Hahn. ‘The story is the willingness of business and civic leaders to speak against the amendment, and how few have spoken for it.’”

Nevertheless, the amendment passed, and only time will tell if North Carolina loses key talent because of it. But by advocating for marriage equality in the face of adversity, these business leaders showed a level of courage that must be meaningful to their workforces – which will likely at least impact employee retention.