Wal-Mart support of gay rights turns on business

Thu Apr 2, 2015 2:14pm EDT
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By Nathan Layne

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores Inc has emerged as an unlikely voice for gay rights after the Arkansas governor heeded his call on Wednesday to reject a much-criticized bill.

But the decision by Doug McMillon to speak out against the "religious freedom" bill reflects more than a decade of evolving policy by the retailer on the issue of gay and lesbian rights, and follows a pattern of taking stands on some social issues when it makes business sense to do so.

"Every day, in our stores, we see firsthand the benefits diversity and inclusion have on our associates, customers and communities we serve," McMillon said in a statement on Tuesday asking for a veto of the bill. That was seen as a major factor behind the governor's decision on Wednesday to ask lawmakers in Wal-Mart's home state for revisions.

Wal-Mart's action comes against the backdrop of other major companies taking stands on developing political and social issues, with mixed results.

General Electric Co CEO Jeff Immelt on Wednesday joined a growing chorus of executives expressing concerns about a similar bill seen as possibly discriminatory against gays in Indiana.

Starbucks Corp canceled a program in which baristas were invited to engage customers on conversations about race, making it a cautionary tale for companies looking to wade into potentially controversial issues.

Wal-Mart has been careful in how it tackles issues in the public domain and retains a reputation for conservatism that traces to its origins in a small Arkansas town.

For years it has resisted calls by labor groups to pay a "living wage" and its move in February to increase pay to at least $9 an hour was viewed by many analysts as driven by competition for workers in a tight labor market as much as social concerns. Advocates of the "living wage" want $15 per hour.   Continued...

The Wal-Mart company logo is seen outside a Wal-Mart Stores Inc company distribution center in Bentonville, Arkansas June 6, 2013.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking