What is Lloyd Blankfein doing starring in an advertisement for same-sex marriage? The man running a firm that was famously called “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” might not seem like the first person a gay rights organization would pick to be the face of their campaign. Goldman Sachs, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is not exactly the world’s most beloved corporation these days, and its CEO is a household name not for the reasons most companies would want.
But there he is, scrunching his brow, introducing himself and asking viewers to “join me and the majority of Americans who support marriage equality.” He is one of several voices that the Human Rights Campaign, the organization behind the ads, sought out to be featured as an unexpected voice in favor of same-sex marriage. “The green visor crowd is not typically associated with socially progressive policies,” HRC executive Fred Sainz told The New York Times, “and this is further proof that a diversity of Americans are coming to the same conclusion.” In other words, the idea is to prove that support for gay marriage is much more broad-based than you might think.
What’s more surprising to me than the fact that Blankfein was asked by the HRC to be its spokesperson, however, is that Blankfein said yes. I don’t say that because it’s a terribly risky move. Wall Street has embraced gay rights more than one might think. Many chief executives are more pragmatic about gay rights than those in other fields—nearly 200 of the country’s largest corporations received a perfect score from the HRC for their policies toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees. And there’s little question that public sentiment is moving toward accepting gay marriage, as is legal precedent. The decision Tuesday by a federal appeals panel that California’s ban of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional illustrates that.
The reason it surprises me is that CEOs typically shy away from being activists on political issues. Consider, for instance, how few CEOs are publicly vocal on the issue of health-care reform, despite the fact that it directly affects their bottom line. Or, when was the last time you heard a top business executive speak out on immigration reform other than to call for more visas for overseas engineers? Even if they have an impact on business, hot-button political issues tend to be kryptonite for the suit-and-tie set. This is a group of leaders, after all, so scripted by their many handlers that they hide hard truths like firing people or missing earnings expectations behind euphemisms and corporate jargon.
Of course, Blankfein’s support for “marriage equality” has surely gotten the stamp of approval from the firm’s P.R. handlers, who no doubt saw an opportunity to broadcast Goldman’s support for diversity and get a little bit of positive news. While there may be some risk inherent among conservative clients, it’s small, and it lets them trumpet Goldman’s employment policies—the firm apparently pays employees for the extra taxes they must pay on domestic partner benefits and covers gender reassignment operations, a rare health benefit.
But perhaps Blankfein is simply personally passionate about this issue, and has decided it’s good to be one of the few CEOs to speak out. According to the New York Times, he has urged state lawmakers to vote for a bill legalizing same-sex marriage and encouraged other CEOs to do so too. Even if a reach for good P.R. had a role in Blankfein’s advocacy, it’s rare enough that business leaders stick their neck out on controversial issues that it’s worth applauding.
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