By Barbara Frankel
Marriott International President and CEO Arne Sorensen doesn’t pull any punches when discussing Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“This is just plain wrong and and we will not stand for it the notion that you can tell businesses that somehow they are free to discriminate is madness. The discouraging thing about this is that these politicians must believe it’s in their interest to pass legislation like this, to create this politics of divisiveness,” he says.
Sorensen sat down with DiversityInc for a private interview before accepting the Straight for Equality in the Workplace award from PFLAG for Marriott International. Marriott is No. 16 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list.
Top of mind for an inclusive leader of an inclusive company was the legislation in Indiana, as well as pending anti-LGBT laws in Arkansas and other states.
Sorensen said he, like many others, was taken aback by news that the bill had been passed and signed into law in Indiana. “I was frustrated because I didn’t realize this was happening. It snuck up on us. If we had even six hours’ notice, there would have been a letter on the governor’s desk.”
He cited Marriott’s early intervention last year when Arizona was considering a similar law and the company’s legal opposition to the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Currently, the company is part of the corporate amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to rule on same-gender marriage laws.
He also noted that Marriott International always would be inclusive of its employees and customers anywhere in the world. And he told a story about a reaction to the Indiana law.
“After the law was signed, we had a future guest send an e-mail to the hotel (a Marriott in Indiana) saying ‘I’m gay. I’m set to come next week. Will I be treated fairly’ As far as I know, there was no raising the question up the corporate ladder. There was an instant response from the hotel saying ‘Are you kidding Of course you are welcome here. We are in the business of welcoming everybody. Please come.’ ”
Sorensen cited Marriott’s long-term support of the LGBT community, which surprised some people early on because of the company’s Mormon roots. “There was a question historically of whether a company that was founded by a Mormon couple and had a Mormon family as its principal shareholders, what its views were in this space. We started more aggressively talking about it so people knew Marriott is a welcoming company,” he said.
The company has expressed its commitment to LGBT travelers as part of its #LoveTravels campaign, which has featured Jason Collins, the NBA’s first out gay player, Geena Rocero, a transgender supermodel, and Marriott’s LGBT employees.
Marriott last year was named Corporation of the Year by the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. The company, the first hotel business to offer same-sex benefits in 1999, has received a 100 percent score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.
For Sorensen, LGBT equality is personal as well. He told a story about attending a small Lutheran college in Iowa in 1977 and, as a freshman, walking in on his college roommate with another man.
“I remember my roommate, who I am still friends with today, looking at me with extraordinary fear in his eyes. He wasn’t out. He wondered if now he was going to be forced to come out. He wasn’t sure if our friendship would survive this,” he recalled.
The story, and his and Marriott’s passion for inclusiveness, brings it back to Indiana. “The opportunity that presents is that if we can get Indiana not just to change its views but to run for the hills quickly hopefully we can put this kind of nonsense behind us once and for all,” he says.