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The Huffington Post reports that Walmart CEO Mike Duke finds himself at the center of a cultural storm these days, as he is accused of being “bigoted and discriminatory” for his support last year of a state initiative preventing same-sex couples from being adoptive or foster parents.

Duke’s support of the initiative became public knowledge when opponents found his signature on a petition calling for a statewide referendum on the issue; it passed in November with 57 percent of the vote.

There seem to be a couple of problems for Duke, who has a reputation within the organization for religious and cultural conservatism. Walmart has been working overtime in recent years to present itself to the world as a more open and accepting employer and corporate citizen, and in some circles, this position appears to run counter to that public relations effort … and creates at least the perception that it is only a public relations effort.

This creates the possibility of a schism between Walmart leadership and the company’s employees who happen to be part of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. And it also seems to put Walmart firmly on one side of the gay rights issue at a time when five states – Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, Massachusetts, and, just this week, Maine – allow gay marriage, and it appears that New Hampshire is close to joining the list. (It is ironic that virtually all of New England soon may allow gay marriage, and that New England probably is Walmart’s weakest territory in the US.)

Another issues at play here, the HuffingtonPost notes, is that Duke signed the petition as a private citizen, not as a Walmart executive: is it fair that his company be held accountable for his own personal beliefs and preferences? Furthermore, it can be argued – though Duke himself has not made this point – that signing a petition calling for a referendum is not necessarily the same as supporting one side of the issue, but rather just supports the notion that citizens ought to be heard and their votes counted.

KC's View:
I love issues like this one – it takes gender politics, civil rights and the role of religion and ties them up in one big messy package that is almost certain to explode in my face.

What the hell. In for a penny…

It is dangerous for this aging, former altar boy to start quoting scripture, because almost certainly people who know far more about the Bible than I will offer competing verses. But when I read this story, I have to admit that a New Testament verse immediately leapt to mind:

Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Of course, I make a living making judgments, so I’m going to ignore that admonition to some extent. And then you guys can take your best shot.

I think that in the best companies, corporate culture is a direct reflection of the people at the top. They reflect their passions and beliefs and interests … that’s why the best companies are run by leaders, not managers. They’re paid the big bucks not just for their skills, but their sensibilities.

I recognize that it must be difficult for some folks to deal with issues like same sex marriage or same sex adoption or even the fact that the LGBT community has a name and a face and growing political and cultural clout. It must be tempting, overwhelmingly so at times, to want to draw a line and say, this far and no farther. Or to find a way, any way, to force a return to simpler times when issues like this one didn’t exist or at least didn’t find their way onto newspaper front pages or onto the Internet for all to see.

But I think that Walmart and its CEO find themselves on the wrong side of history on this issue. I don't think it is out of any sort of malevolence, though some would argue that there certainly may some ignorance.

We all face issues – within our families, or circles of friends, our workplaces and our communities – that are hard to understand, hard to integrate into our mindsets. But we have to start with compassion and tolerance, to whatever degree we can muster it, even if we have to fake it. And that goes especially if you are the CEO of a public company with responsibilities to be a good shepherd of a wide-ranging and diverse flock.

It is a good thing that Mike Duke has agreed to meet with Walmart Pride, a group representing the company’s LGBT employees. I hope it is the beginning of progress. Because the alternative simply doesn’t make any sense. For anyone.

Whatever happens, here’s the lesson: nothing is a secret anymore. Everything is transparent. Act accordingly. Because actions have consequences.