OPINION: Global companies must ensure diversity policies are implemented in every country

by Bisi Alimi | @tbafoundations | Bisi Alimi Foundation
Monday, 29 April 2019 08:45 GMT

People stand near graffiti along Ajah-Falomo expressway in Victoria Island district in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos April 24, 2017.REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A staff member at the Sheraton Lagos Hotel, Nigeria said I was disgracing myself for being a man who is married to man

Bisi Alimi is the founder and the Executive Director of the Bisi Alimi Foundation, an organisation working to accelerate social acceptance of LGBT people in Nigeria.

It has become a cliché that companies have a responsibility not just to train their staff in diversity issues, but also to create an atmosphere in which guests and staff can come together without fear of discrimination.

However, where strongly held personal values come in conflict with corporate values, companies must have policies in place that draw a clear line between the two – and these policies must align with the provision of well-rounded training for staff.

This is even more important when the company is a global brand that has a name to protect and an identity to present.

Earlier this month, I had an experience that led me to question just how these much-vaunted diversity policies actually work in practice in hostile settings.

I am very well-known in Nigeria. I started my career as an actor on Nigerian television before becoming the first person to ever come out on national TV in 2004. This decision cost me my career and led to a failed assassination attempt on my life before I fled the country and sought asylum in the UK.

I started coming back to Nigeria in 2016, when I started the Bisi Alimi Foundation as a way of accelerating social acceptance of LGBT+ people in the country.

Yet homophobia – as I experienced when I tried to charge my phone at the Sheraton Lagos Hotel – still exists. When I went to pick it up, I was accused by a member of staff of disgracing myself for being a man who is married to man. They said I am less of a man and I should be ashamed of myself.

I was completely shocked. The Sheraton, which stresses the importance of diversity, is part of an international chain of hotels owned by Marriott International.

After much thought – as I didn’t want the staff member to lose their job – I reported the incident and 24 hours later received an apology from the hotel stating that what had happened should not be seen as a reflection of its policy in Nigeria.

But my experience is just the tip of a much wider problem in Nigerian society.

In 2013, more than 95 percent of Nigerians called for a law to jail LGBT+ people; a call that led directly to the signing of the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, one of the most homophobic laws in the world.

As a secular country ruled by religious principles, Nigeria has never shied away from its vicious hatred of the gay and trans community. We have seen this in many ways, including “jungle justice” – or extrajudicial killings – blackmail and people being summarily dismissed from work.

This is why when the Sheraton says that the actions of their staff do not reflect company policy I can’t help but disagree.

There is no way that a global business operating in Nigeria with Nigerian staff can deny the reality that their staff’s views and personal values are not a reflection of the company polices when their employees have not been trained on what it means to be inclusive.

I offered the hotel a free day’s workplace training programme through my foundation. The Sheraton rejected the offer, stating that they already had sufficient training for their staff, but added they would “be conducting an internal re-training session for our associates”.

But the issue is not about training and retraining but about creating an environment in which the hotel’s staff understanding diverse sexual orientation and gender identity.

Global brands operating in countries around the world with different laws and customs must pay attention.

It is great that companies want to position themselves as LGBT-friendly, sponsoring Pride marches or donating to gay and trans organisations. But that must translate into practice in countries where homosexuality is illegal or frowned upon.

It is time for LGBT+ organisations and people to rethink their commitment to brands that state they have global diversity and inclusion policies, but in actual fact only implement them when it is comfortable or convenient.

Diversity should not be about lip service. It is about being proactive and ensuring all minorities – whether of sexuality, gender or race – are protected.

And if companies don’t match up to their policies, then it’s time the LGBT+ community politely paid the bill and checked out.

We contacted Marriott International for a right of reply. In a statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the hotel group said: 

"Marriott International is committed to providing an environment where all feel welcome and respected for who they are. We sincerely apologize to Mr. Alimi for his experience and we will keep working hard, as we have for over 90 years, to put people first and welcome all."