One of the proudest boasts of Australian Marriage Equality is that it has strong support in the corporate world. At last count, 628 corporations had signed a letter supporting same-sex marriage – not just because it is fair, but because it is profitable.
Not only is marriage equality the only truly fair option, it is also a sound economic option given, that a happy workforce is a productive one.
But should voters really be impressed by support from the Big End of Town? After all, if you hear a CEO bluster that workplace safety regulations are too expensive, are you impressed? If you hear a CEO argue for the abolition of a minimum wage, are you impressed? Why are the views of a CEO on marriage wiser than those of a bus driver?
In fact, CEOs are said to have higher than average divorce rates, suggesting that they might know less about marriage than bus drivers.
What corporate CEOs are good at is getting their own way. So when corporate Australia backs same-sex marriage, we can expect both gassy rhetoric about “a happy workforce” and a lot of arm-twisting. Which is more or less what Alan Joyce, the CEO of Qantas and the unofficial spokesman for gay marriage in corporate Australia, told a gay newspaper a couple of years ago:
“We have 580 companies involved with the [Australian Marriage Equality] ad campaign. If you’re unhappy with a company that’s involved with the campaign you won’t be able to bank and you won’t be able to fly anywhere.”
And where arms will be twisted the hardest will be inside the corporates.
Take Google, one of those 628 corporations. A Google engineer in the US wrote a long memo arguing for less gender diversity at work – and last month he was bundled out of the company almost immediately. Also last month a team of scholars at a think-tank which received funding from Google published a position paper critical of Google – and their contract was terminated almost immediately. Remember Google’s old motto, “Don't Be Evil”? It was dropped from its code of conduct in 2015.
This is how draconian companies can be in enforcing their corporate culture. There’s no guarantee that same-sex marriage supporting companies will “create a fair and respectful environment” for employees who do not support it. Companies which support gay marriage already dragoon employees into participating in diversity fiestas, the Gay Mardi Gras, and wearing purple to celebrate transgender rights. If same-sex marriage becomes legal, workplace tyranny may become unbearable for some employees. Perhaps Alan Joyce could tell us whether any of his senior executives disagrees with him.
“Tyranny” is a strong word, but a professor at the University of Michigan does not shrink from using it in a recent book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It). Elizabeth Anderson points out that companies are run like authoritarian governments. They are run by leaders whose word is law; there is no right to complain apart from narrowly defined exceptions; surveillance is ubiquitous; people can be punished for their lifestyles.
Normally it is a benign authoritarianism which enforces compliance with carrots rather than sticks. But that does not mean that it suffers dissent gladly. “Because it controls communication, it also has a propaganda apparatus that often persuades many to support the regime,” she writes. “This need not amount to brainwashing. In many cases, people willingly support the regime and comply with its orders because they identify with and profit from it.”
The company’s punishments for the most stubborn of dissidents are mild – compared to North Korea. Taking up her analogy with an authoritarian government, she points out that unhappy employees do have a choice – but not a very attractive one: you quit:
The most common sanction is exile. Individuals are also free to emigrate, although if they do, there is usually no going back.
Anderson’s point is that companies have almost unlimited power to enforce compliance with their policies, policies which are set without consultation by management – and normally just a handful of managers.
So how will this play out inside the 628 corporations? Will their human resources departments ferret out dissidents and offer them re-education programs? If they believe that their profitability rests on a united front on gay marriage, perhaps they will.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.