At a recent Pride event in London, there was one banner that struck me most of all: “Love Does Go the Distance,” it proclaimed. Even in the dry commerciality of business, I am certain this is true – especially when it comes to LGBTQ acceptance in the workplace.

Over the past twenty years, and even more it would seem over the last few, the clarion call for the rights of people to be treated equally (no matter their sexual orientation or self-identification) has become a key topic. This is true not just for ‘guardians of law and order’ and intrepid organizations dedicated towards advancing social and human rights, but for brands and businesses too.

Businesses have gathered pace over the past half dozen years or so in an effort to understand, adopt, and apply these principles of equality. Unfortunately, my experience with many brands tells me that often the basic culture within these very businesses – which outwardly profess empathy – is no more than social dressing.

I remember an instance about 10 years ago when a leading brand seeking my advice rebutted my recommendations. As one leading executive put it, ‘going pink’ – or incorporating LGBTQ issues into the market economy – would distract many of their clients and consequently harm their brand and the business.

Of course they declined to get ‘involved’ in any sort of advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ people. Years later, I see them trying to address directly what they once called ‘that other community.’ I was horrified to hear these words spoken by a man who is very cultured and educated – yet there he stood, fearful of embracing basic rights. This attitude is exceptionally dangerous for various groups of people, and will only serve to harm the business world by proxy.

No amount of dressing will help if you are intolerant at your core. Equality is only possible if you prioritize fair treatment and merit, as is inherent to a strong foundation of cultural inclusion. It is therefore up to business leaders to ensure that acceptance of LGBTQ people is intrinsic to their DNA, not a shoddy addition.

I think we all make our own versions of normal, and those in business must establish theirs firmly: you either truly empathize through a culture that promotes listening, learning, and evolving – inextricably linked day by fluid day to the way of working and your way of life – or you have hypocrisy lightly polished with sugar-coated condescension. This latter “normal” is periodic noise – a little bit of tinsel pretending to be ‘of the moment’ when indeed it is nothing more than falsehood.

There is no sin to my mind if, by way of example, a heterosexual might be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable with what the nuances of homosexuality. That is their life choice, and they don’t need to be denigrated for this. They too have a right to whatever ‘values’ they believe in, so long as it does no harm (and this is key). With so much opportunity to discover and learn, room for indiscriminate judgment, malice, and unkindness is rapidly shrinking. History will cast no glow upon intolerance and falsehood. Thoughtfulness, kindness and yes, love does go the distance. And this goes for everyone.

A dear friend of mine recently gave me Sapiens, a wonderful book by Yuval Noah Harari. Every now and then, someone – or in this case, a book – comes along that not only stops me in my tracks but urges me to rethink what I know and believe in. I call it a moment where ‘my balance needs to be re-balanced.’ This book has made me really ponder upon many aspects of my beliefs and ways of thinking – and whilst I decline (for now) to uncouple some of my inner beliefs, I am left reflecting more and more on one important aspect of his book which he calls ‘the objective reality.’

The fundamental point behind this premise is that much of what we follow and believe is actually not based on something that was grown from the soil or created before man gained the power to re-imagine and devise. Indeed, our very nationhood – countries, anthems, flags, emblems, policies, folklore, and laws themselves – have been created by us. Our very norms and structures are derived from our imaginations. As academics put it, they are “fictions, social constructs, imagined realities.”

At a dinner party the other night, I heard that to cut one’s lettuce leaf, as opposed to folding it before putting it in your mouth was terribly rude. What nonsense! And yet there it was: some people around the table nodding their affirmation, while others blinked, deep in thought, yet said nothing. I just came out with it and called it what it was: one person’s ridiculous, imagined reality and a group’s unwillingness to challenge it.

Imagined realities are not lies, but things that almost everyone believe in. Such imagined realities, from national identity to currency (all more monumental than salad etiquette), exert great power in our world, especially when they are acted upon, vocalized, enunciated and captured into laws and our ways of life. And there it is: we make our own normal. It was once an imagined reality that deviation from heterosexuality or cisgender was wrong or bad. This reality is changing for the better by virtue of the human imagination and the triumph of open mindedness and acceptance.

All of this is to say that brands have a choice. Companies have a choice. People – you and me – have choices. We can make the freedom to live and be yourself our choice as long as it does not hurt anyone. Silent choice, by contrast, is cowardice. And cowardice comes from a fear inflicted by those who have transient power.

So, to the question: What place do LGBTQ people, rights, and concerns have in the workplace? If you hold such a conversation as it relates to your brand, business, and very life, then you may find it is time to recast and rethink your way of working. To get to a place of true equality will unfortunately take time, but it starts with allowing the conversation to happen. It is not a separate club or a rainbow casing. Only deep roots in human decency will foster this necessary respect, rather than the proliferation of lip service or separation.

Don’t be a gatherer of tinsel! Focus on a culture of real (not manufactured) care and respect if inclusion is your goal. Sexuality, gender and the like are important and diverse flavors of the human experience, but they having nothing to do with one’s ability and should never be factored into judgment on job qualifications.

Equality is a difficult thing to practice. We too often demonstrate an exalted opinion of ourselves. Too many wrestle with this, borne from the cruelty of others foisted upon them. It may take longer for them. Patience is the balm and time, the healer. Leaders must set an example that allow for this healing to occur by infusing work culture with human themes, like compassion and empathy. But they will have to take the initiative and understand these themes on their own terms first instead of bending to superficial whims.

The power of fair speech (not free and thoughtless) and balanced opinion is more crucial now than ever. It is important to use our imaginations better to create a new and more certain reality – that humans and kindness should always go together. For, in the end, is this not what humankind means?


  • Alexei Orlov

    Alexei Orlov is a Global Marketer and Business Leader. He is the Founder and CEO of mtm choice worldwide and the former CMO of Volkswagen Group China.

    With experience spanning 30 years, 40 countries, and 50 brands, Alexei Orlov has made life his business and business his life as a seasoned leader in Global Marketing. A proven specialist in global brand strategy, marketing deployment, and operational change management, Alexei’s passionate and dynamic leadership has been a driving force throughout his career. Alexei Orlov is Founder and Global CEO of mtm choice worldwide, a boutique network of skilled practitioners specialising in high-precision brand activation and media optimisation. Bolstered by market-enabling technologies, mtm agencies seek to help brands excel at the “moments that matter” for their customers and consumers. The company, which initially raised $30 million, has completed two acquisitions and will be closing a third in July 2018. mtm is currently in negotiations to complete a further $50 million of funding to support additional top-tier acquisitions in 2018. Prior to mtm, Alexei Orlov served as Senior Advisor to the CEO & Chairman of DAS, an international division of Omnicom Group. Prior to DAS, he served as Global CEO of RAPP where he oversaw a dramatic turnaround, attracting new business and leadership talent through a successful rebranding initiative. As Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of Volkswagen Group China, Alexei Orlov was responsible for the overall marketing and brand positioning for the Volkswagen Brands portfolio across Greater China and ASEAN. Alexei was jointly responsible for the commercial excellence of the company’s significant regional business as a core member of Volkswagen’s executive team. Alexei served the digital specialist agency Wunderman for eight years as President (Europe), then as Global COO and finally as Executive Vice-Chairman (Worldwide). He also served as the Global Strategic Lead for WPP’s automotive business, where he co-led agencies including Ogilvy & Mather, Wunderman, Mindshare, Y&R and JWT on their work for Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mazda, and Volvo. Before joining Wunderman, Alexei Orlov owned and ran ROCQM and MCW, specialists in brand strategy and commercial recovery. After selling the company to WPP, the company became one of the key cornerstones of what later became RMG Connect, a global strategy service within the WPP portfolio. Prior, Alexei was Global Brand Communications Director for Volvo Cars and Marketing Director of Volvo UK, at the time the second-largest national sales company for the Volvo Corporation. Alexei was the youngest executive to be appointed to a director position at Avon, where he served as Marketing Director of Avon Cosmetics Retail (Europe). At the beginning of his career he was a founding member of the highly-successful Paperchase Retail Group, igniting in him a passion for brand stewardship that carries on to this day. Alexei Orlov has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and honors. In 2012 and 2013, Alexei was awarded CMO of the Year / ASEAN by the World Brand Congress. In 2013, Alexei and his team at Proximity received a Cannes Gold Lion Award for their work creating the People’s Car Project, the largest automotive social media platform with 28 million users and 108 million YouKu followers. Alexei was also invited to be one of the top keynote speakers at the highly-acclaimed Global Brand Forum in 2013. Alexei Orlov’s dynamic insight is reflected in his continued ventures, thought leadership, and everyday philosophies. Originally from the United Kingdom, he currently resides in New York City where he spends leisure time with his beloved family, enjoys nature, and writes poetry.