Equal benefits are the bedrock of any business espousing true support of its LGBT employees. A transgender man denied access to mental health services under his employer’s insurance, a lesbian mother who can’t get coverage for her partner in a conservative state that doesn’t recognize same-sex unions—these are the commonplace stories that bring inequities into focus.

The Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equality Index, which has rated private-sector companies on gay-friendly policies since 2002, has gradually evolved its standards to press employers for greater accountability beyond the usual medical, dental, and vision care imperatives. In fact, the new corporate index standards (unveiled earlier this year for implementation in 2011) will now require companies to include other crucial benefits, such as transgender-inclusive health care. Bottom line: Companies seeking to retain their coveted 100% ratings may soon have to work a little harder.

But benefits are only part of the picture. Parity in health care coverage, for example, doesn’t guarantee a workplace free of hostile colleagues with relentless crude jokes. Perhaps that’s why diversity initiatives and community outreach increasingly are regarded as equally vital components to an accepting workplace—so long as they’re enforced. Corporations seeking to retain competent workers in challenging economic times are realizing that money spent on inclusiveness programs in the near term can reap rewards (read: profits) in the future. A greater emphasis on recruiting gay and lesbian workers and gauging their satisfaction of their work environments are becoming essential benchmarks for corporate equality. CEOs with their eyes on the ball are likely adhering to the following maxims. Is yours?

Educate an existing workforce to attract and retain talent.

actively discouraging homophobia and teaching all workers about the unique issues facing LGBT colleagues is an expansive undertaking for companies whose employees may number in the thousands. “The only way to close the enormous gap between corporate policy and corporate culture is through education,” says Brian McNaught, a prominent diversity consultant who works regularly with Fortune 500 companies. “People need help in getting past their fears, and domestic-partner benefits don’t give them that help, nor does a nondiscrimination policy. Comprehensive education on [LGBT] issues has to start with the CEO and include all senior and middle managers.”

As an industry, financial services is one of the most progressive in diversity education. Under intense competition to collect capital from a wide variety of sources, these firms need employees with both the access to and understanding of diverse cultures and communities. Credit Suisse, which offers health care, retirement, adoption assistance, and 401(k) transfers to all of its 46,000-plus employees, has worked with McNaught on a slew of training programs that teach all workers about issues affecting LGBT people, from second-parent adoptions to gender transition. One such program brings together managers and employees to discuss the sex-reassignment process and how it will affect work flow. Employees map out a schedule outlining all steps of their reassignment and work with managers to ensure their job duties get done during any leave of absence.

Credit Suisse is initiating an additional pilot program (dubbed “Open Perspectives”) that introduces gay MBA candidates to the company’s senior managers and gives them a taste of Credit Suisse’s investment banking, private banking, sales, and trading sectors. (Such programs aren’t merely symbolic: The firm likely will cull selected talent from Open Perspectives for its summer associate program.)
Diversity consultant Jennifer Brown, who works with firms to create strategies on hiring and engaging gay employees, says companies need to be aware that policies on the books, while a start, don’t always ensure that people feel safe working on the factory floor. “[Companies] can’t guarantee that all people follow their rules,” Brown says, adding that employee resource groups need to watch out for homophobia and mistreatment at all levels—not just at corporate headquarters. “There are people regionally who have a lot of clout and impact how LGBT folks are treated.”

To that end, aerospace firm Boeing is making an effort to ensure that its non-U.S. gay employees and their families are protected. The company has set up a system where workers use internal social networking sites to help them deal with difficult situations, like working in a country where homosexuality is illegal. Connie Summers, Boeing’s manager of cultural diversity and inclusion, says LGBT workers abroad know to call her for help with their concerns. These workers can also talk to employee resource groups in the United States to address and solve their problems. “It really is about all these different ways we connect,” she says.

Insurance firm Chubb uses its own Gay and Lesbian Employee Network, or GLEN, to run an extensive workforce education program. As part of that effort, GLEN in June facilitated workshops on “Understanding Gay and Transgender Issues in the Workplace” at 10 of Chubb’s U.S. regional offices. A video of a similar event, hosted in suburban New Jersey by gay former National Basketball Association player John Amaechi, was shown at seminars throughout the company.

Chubb actively presents its own model of inclusion to other companies looking to attract gay employees. In July a Chubb representative addressed the American Bar Association’s Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, making the business case for LGBT rights and offering a step-by-step guide on how to foster equality.

Tags: Business