A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Mike Harrington-informal mediumToday's guest blog comes from Michael Harrington, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Lilly.

Indeed, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

That’s not just the title of an award-winning Broadway musical. It also speaks to a realization I had en route to speaking on a panel at the recent Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Dallas. The summit focused on connecting gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and allied professionals nationwide and even globally. Dialogue throughout the week included topics such as interfaith matters, unconscious bias, and sophisticated employee resource group initiatives. Business case studies and panel discussions were featured.

The conversation I took part in revolved around recent Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) and similar legislation in Indiana and other states. Lilly is headquartered in Indianapolis and played a part in clarifying some language in our home state's own such bill earlier this year. The matter was public and volatile. Debate escalated about whether Indiana's RFRA could be interpreted to discriminate against LGBT individuals when it came to selling goods and services, and thoughts and feelings were expressed fiercely on both sides.

I liked what my fellow panelist, Jessica Shortall from the Texas Competes organization, said during our panel: "There should be absolutely no shaming of businesses; I'd rather be effective than righteous." That's just simple respect for people—one of Lilly's core values—that includes respecting differences of opinion.


As executive sponsor of the Lilly PRIDE employee resource group geared toward LGBT colleagues, allies and interested individuals, I take to heart what members of this ERG say. I'm responsible for listening to them first, and acting when I can. That's why I participated at Out & Equal, for one, and I was glad to see them up front in the audience. They believe they need my support, and I need them just the same.

As a senior VP at Lilly, I'm bound to the business. I make choices every day that affect the direction we're heading. And it's a sound business decision that catalyzed Lilly's pursuit of a RFRA change in Indiana. We simply must recruit and retain outstanding talent hailing from around the world. As we compete, Indiana itself competes—and we've been invested in this community for all of our nearly 140 years as a company. A solid quarter of our workforce inhabits Indiana. Our largest research and development footprint is here, too. We care deeply about how the state is perceived as a place to live and work. 

But the realization I had en route to—and soon after—that panel and Q&A session was this: Many corporations, large and important and global, sponsor this event. They give tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars to O&E to have their names and logos emblazoned on huge screens, shirts, printed materials and giveaways. These companies come from an array of industries and deliver a wide swath of goods and services themselves. One trusts that they're funneling such funds not just into sponsorship opportunities but into making meaningful, real-life differences in the lives of their employees. In doing so, they'll make changes in their communities—positive and lasting ones, with hope.

I certainly have that hope. And next October, the Out & Equal Summit will come up again, this time in Orlando. Between now and then, the private sector’s large corporations must put their mouths where their money is. It's always the right time for that.


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