* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The impact of the Ukraine war could cause global companies to rollback their LGBTQ+ inclusivity efforts, but their support is needed now more than ever.
Jens Schadendorf is an economist, LGBT researcher and author of GaYme Changer, which was shortlisted for the Business Book Awards 2022.
Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has turned world security and market order upside down – and LGBTQ+ people in Central and Eastern Europe could end up paying the price.
Globally, stakeholder expectations have been changing fast in recent years, with increasing demand for businesses to value equality, justice and inclusion in their workforce and practices.
This is especially needed in formerly communist Central and Eastern European countries, such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and the Baltic states, where life as an LGBTQ+ person can be extremely difficult, and sometimes actively dangerous.
Now, the uncertainty of war is already pushing some Western companies to rethink their strategies and markets in the region, with the little equality that exists at risk of being pushed back even further.
Many countries close to Russia’s threatening arsenal are not yet stable democracies or market economies. They are now being shaken by huge economic and social challenges following the invasion of Ukraine.
Most have had to significantly increase their military spending and have seen a huge influx of refugees crossing their borders. They are also almost completely dependent on Russian energy supplies, such as oil and gas, and are experiencing soaring prices while struggling to find new providers.
The result is higher debt, endangered social peace, and more political instability.
These pressures could lead global businesses to decrease their LGBTQ+ inclusion work in Central and Eastern Europe. Companies might be tempted to deprioritise their activities which foster equality, both within their own offices and the wider community.
They may also invest less of their regional and national inclusion budgets on setting up internal events, training, or supporting local LGBTQ+ organisations.
However, these companies must instead realise it is more of a risk not to invest in LGBTQ+ rights. Beyond the argument for human rights, more and more research has demonstrated the economic benefits of championing equality.
Many businesses in Western markets, supported by LGBTQ+ organisations such as the Human Rights Campaign, Stonewall, or Workplace Pride, have reaped huge economic dividends through diversity and inclusion tools, such as corporate policies and benefits pertinent to LGBTQ+ employees.
Not taking this approach in Central and Eastern Europe systematically has always been a mistake. A further reluctance to do so now would be an even greater failure, both ethically and for financial reasons.
Western companies need to lead the way and bravely develop more activist advocate strategies for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the region. They should invest more money in broadly visible activities both within their own offices and the wider local communities.
Even in a world reshaped by war, championing equality would make businesses more attractive to generations of talent, suppliers, customers, and investors. They could foster an open workplace culture, which is proven to be better for productivity and innovation.
It would also help further develop and stabilise the region’s fragile democracies and market orders, therefore contributing to political stability and social cohesion - which is also good for business.
The process is not an easy one and will require support from activists and NGOs, but both moral argument and rational cost-benefit analysis show how worthwhile it will be.
Diverse identities matter more now than ever and pursuing such a strategy could lead a company to become a human rights and LGBTQ+ inclusion champion – giving them a long-term competitive advantage at home and beyond.
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