Given a moral dilemma, you can always count on Hong Kong bankers to do the wrong thing. And, once again, of course, they have done so; only this time their stance is especially galling and hypocritical.

Offered an opportunity to show public support for equal rights for LGBT employees who have been adding handsomely to their bottom line for many years now, 11 of 13 invited investment banks have refused to sign a petition urging the government to extend to same-sex marriage partners the spousal visa recognition that is routinely granted to heterosexual couples.

PinkDot LGBT rally was sponsored by big banks. Photo: PinkDot.

These are the very banks that have made a point of touting their record for inclusiveness in the workplace, just last year successfully lobbying the nonprofit group sponsoring the petition, Community Business, for awards and endorsements for their support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.

Now that the NGO has asked them to back up those awards with their signatures, bank executives have wimped out with gobbledygook excuses that amount to a slap in the face not just to their LGBT employees but to everyone who supports equal rights where they work.

Here is the message that should now be posted, right next to their world-renowned logos, in the spacious lobbies of banks including Goldman Sachs, HSBC, JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Standard Chartered, Barclays Capital, Nomura, UBS and Credit Suisse:

Within the confines of this building, this bank fully supports the efforts of all our employees—no matter their race, creed or sexual preference—to increase our profits to the maximum, but don’t expect even minimal public support for aberrant lifestyle choices that could tarnish our image in the broader community.

Photo: HKFP.

Only the Commonwealth Bank of Australia had the courage and institutional character to sign the petition, which was inspired by a court case last year involving a woman whose same-sex spouse was denied a dependent visa by the Immigration Department, even though the couple was legally wed before arriving in Hong Kong. The litigant, identified in the case a “QT,” argued that her spouse is entitled to the same visa granted as a matter of course to heterosexual marital dependents.

QT lost her case last March, but she has appealed; moreover, her initial legal challenge has inspired additional suits by other same-sex couples who think the time is right to press for their equal rights in the city.

While the majority of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people do not support same-sex marriage, surveys clearly show that attitudes toward LGBT issues are softening as the city becomes more accepting of alternative lifestyles. Reactionary blowhards like to harp on about “traditional Chinese values” and the inherent “conservatism” of Hong Kong society in opposing any shift away from good old-fashioned racism, sexism and homophobia. But such attitudes are hardly an exclusive domain belonging to the Chinese.

Photo: Dan Garrett.

Indeed, these are scourges that the whole world is working on eradicating, and with increasing and notable success. Hong Kong can either join the fight or be left behind at a cost to its reputation and—yes, as the city’s banker-hypocrites discovered—its bottom line.

There is a reason the likes of HSBC and Goldman Sachs have been in the forefront of hiring LGBT employees: Money-minded bankers and their HR departments realised long ago that there were economic costs to bias in the workplace. They want to hire the best talent for the best price, and they don’t care what goes on in the bedroom of their employees.

Thus, Hong Kong banks have rightfully received plaudits for their willingness to hire and support LGBT employees. Unfortunately, however, save for the Australian exception, this support has no moral underpinning. Publicly challenging the Hong Kong government and so-called “traditional Chinese values” could possibly have economic consequences, and so the same banks that were in the LGBT vanguard a short while ago are now choosing to take a back seat.

Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip.

Queried about his bank’s lack of support for the petition, this was the mealy-mouthed response from HSBC spokesman Gareth Hewett:

“[HSBC] prefers to work through other channels to support the LGBT community, using our senior leadership where appropriate and ensuring they are kept up to date with the latest developments.”

The latest development is the petition—so sign it.

Astonishingly, Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Steven Victorin explained his bank’s lack of support by saying that lobbying for LGBT rights is “not really something that’s being done in the community here.”

Mr. Victorin, let us recommend some parades you could attend and an openly gay legislative councillor you could meet. Perhaps you should also become acquainted with the city’s Equal Opportunities Commission, whose chairman until last March, York Chow Yat-ngok, spent much of his three years in office promoting equal rights for LGBT people.

Chow even expressed support for gay marriage. Your bank and others could do the same—and probably make a much bigger impact.

In a city where bankers are kings, Hong Kong’s financial royalty have chosen to abdicate when it comes to equal rights and social justice.

Clarification: A previous version of this piece stated that  ANZ Bank had refused to sign the petition. In fact, ANZ say they were not aware of any such petition.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.