Published: March 30th, 2015

By now you probably have heard about Indiana’s new  “religious freedom” law.

You may even have seen the tweet from Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce Inc., who announced the company was cancelling all programs that would require employees to travel to Indiana.

But before we get to why this matters, let’s get the facts out of the way.

While Salesforce may be among the most drastic in handling its opposition to the bill, it’s not the only company to express concerns, or even the only technology vendor.

Before the bill had even passed, a letter drafted by Clear Software CEO Jon Gilman asking Governor Mike Pence to reconsider was signed by Salesforce Marketing Cloud CEO Scott McCorkle, CloudOne CEO John McDonald, Salesvue CEO Bill Johnson, LeadJen president Jenny Vance, CEO Max Yoder, and Benioff.

The bill, which is widely seen as a legal endorsement for businesses to deny service to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender (LGBT) community and recalls periods of racial segregation in the U.S., has also been opposed by such organizations as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)Yelp, Gen Con, one of the largest video game conventions in the U.S., the city of San Francisco, and of course, Apple Inc.

Why does this debate in the State of Indiana matter here in Canada, where LGBT rights seem to be a non-issue?

What’s novel is not that gay rights are yet again being squabbled over in the U.S. or even that they were successfully contested this time. What’s novel is the level of proactiveness shown by revenue-generating businesses towards championing a social cause such as this.

Few would imagine that even 10 years ago corporations would engage in this level of activism, especially without external pressure.  So why is it the case today?

For one, a practice like non-discrimination means more than just a good image or simply good business. The trade-off that companies make when gaining insight into consumer lives through social business is that companies need to be invested in what their customers are passionate about.

But this extends to more than just consumer-facing cause marketing.

Recently I spoke with a recruiter as well as an IT professor at the University of Toronto about the IT skills shortage and what young graduates are looking for in a job.  One resounding message was that they wanted their work to have meaning beyond generating revenue.

“I think it’s the kids that we told to recycle in grade school,” said Susan Sim of the Faculty of Information at U of T.  “They believed us. For the better.”

If we were to take the example of H&M and Ikea, two wildly successful Swedish companies, both source sustainable materials in a variety of their products, and in some cases even implemented humane work conditions.

Google, consistently ranked as the best employer in the world, has more than ubiquitous technology and cool offices; it puts energy into causes like net neutrality.  So does Teksavvy, one of the more successful Canadian small ISPs, who is vocal both on this issue as well as usage-based billing.

Costco, ranked just below Google, has well-documented wage policies that have been praised by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Gone are the days when companies could hold an annual charity fundraiser and call it a day.

These efforts are not arbitrary.  If done right, they can have a real impact on company culture.

In the burgeoning IT skills shortage, how will a company distinguish itself not just in the eyes of potential clients, but fresh talent?

Some may ask themselves what the risk is of taking on a cause and stirring controversy.  What they should ask is what the danger is of not taking on a cause and becoming irrelevant.