Supporting LGBT: Business can't afford inequality

The hospitality industry, by definition, tends to be diverse and welcoming, and given the nature of our business, it is incumbent on a company like Marriott International to promote inclusivity. It is becoming increasingly apparent to me, however, that promoting equality also has much broader economic resonance and benefits.

A major topic of conversation at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month was the global business community's response to pervasive social and economic inequalities in many parts of the world. The latest meeting at this international crossroads made clear that, to unleash global growth, we must recognize and help resolve some sobering challenges related to the status of women, youth unemployment, and various forms of discrimination or violence against marginalized populations.

Kauai Marriott Resort
Source: Marriott | Facebook
Kauai Marriott Resort

For me, a particularly impactful discussion concerned business leadership and engagement on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, which followed a first-ever panel organized by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and moderated by journalist Fareed Zakaria. This served as a valuable reminder of the unique vulnerabilities and challenges this particular community faces both abroad and here at home.

(Read more: Op-ed: Hey, Hollywood—stop the hypocrisy!)

Without a doubt, the LGBT community has made remarkable progress on several fronts recently and has cause for celebration. Still, there remains more to do, especially for those of us aiming to be global business leaders, in hospitality and any other sector. I am encouraged to see a growing peer group of American business heavy-hitters in industries ranging from manufacturing to tech now taking part in substantive discussion on LGBT rights. CEOs — not just diversity officers — need to be engaged on these issues, and to promote further dialogue and education among their executives.

At Marriott, we work hard to see the world through the eyes of guests and our associates — and then act to remove barriers to work and travel while ensuring every individual can feel welcome, safe and respected when they enter one of our properties. These are core values that transcend race, gender or, we believe, sexual orientation and gender identity.

We implement these values through both our internal policies and external public affairs advocacy.

(Read more: Op-ed: Of course the 'Lego Movie' villain is 'Lord Business')

Case in point, when the Defense of Marriage Act went before the Supreme Court last year, Marriott stood beside same-sex couples, urging the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in a business-coalition brief to the court supporting and expanding on plaintiff Edie Windsor's position. We argued that the cost of inequality is a price businesses cannot afford to pay. When we looked hard at our work force, and listened to our guests and business partners, we saw legal inequalities that are not only unfair on their face, but also needlessly drive up costs in our benefits programs, hinder our recruiting and retention goals, and add uncertainty by requiring us to manage our greatest asset, our people, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, rather than equally and uniformly.

Internally, for over a decade, we have also done our best to advance corporate policies that address these gaps and prohibit discrimination. Working with allies like the Human Rights Campaign and tapping internal resources, including our LGBT employee network (of which I'm a participating member), has helped with these efforts. We believe our policies now enable all our associates to come to work fired up to succeed and able to focus on guests, free from worry about discrimination against them or their spouses and families. We take pride in our top score on the latest HRC Corporate Equality Index, a reflection of our best practices when it comes to inclusion.

(Read more: Op-ed: Hey, Wall Street—want people to trust you again?)

It dismays many of us that in 29 states people can still be fired for being gay. We still see a patchwork of marriage and relationship recognition laws from state to state that add complications and needless cost to our payroll, tax and benefits administration. These burdens are felt even more by individual LGBT Americans, some of whom wear Marriott nametags every day, who deserve nothing less than fairness and equality.

Corporate leadership isn't just about leading a company; it's about community leadership and global citizenship. This journey is vital and unfinished, and basic advances for human rights must begin here at home.

— By Arne Sorenson

Arne Sorenson is the president and CEO of Marriott International.