By Alex Davidson
Originally published on Advocate.com September 15 2009 9:00 AM ET
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.
Care about the community? Prove it.
Equality in the workplace is just good business, many companies say. But demonstrating a commitment to the livelihood of gay and lesbian workers by supporting their causes also is crucial. Indeed, the HRC’s third revision of its corporate index policy mandates several outreach elements to achieve a 100% rating, such as philanthropic support of gay groups, choosing suppliers with progressive policies, and voicing support for pro-gay legislation.
Setting up such programs is not always an easy task for a publicly traded company with shareholders of every political stripe, but many corporations have nonetheless made their position clear. Last year Pacific Gas & Electric Co. created a group, cochaired by Levi Strauss & Co., to encourage other businesses to oppose California’s Proposition 8. Coca-Cola, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and other blue-chip companies have all previously expressed support for a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (a new version of the bill that includes sexual orientation plus gender identity and expression currently is before both houses of Congress).
Harrah’s Entertainment, the world’s largest gaming company, with 2008 revenues of $10.1 billion, recently used its clout to persuade Nevada legislators to pass a domestic-partnership bill (Las Vegas Strip rivals MGM Mirage and Wynn Resorts joined Harrah’s in the lobbying effort). “We are concerned that there will be a negative economic impact” if the bill fails, Jan L. Jones, Harrah’s senior vice president of communications and government relations, wrote in a letter to state legislators. “With an overwhelming majority (75%) of Americans who feel that same-sex couples should, at a minimum, have domestic partner benefits, we are sending other states the wrong message: that our state cares about protecting its visitors over giving its residents very basic rights and benefits.” In May the Nevada state assembly overrode a veto of the bill by Gov. Jim Gibbons; the law takes effect October 1.
In the Midwest, executives at Columbus, Ind.–based Cummins, a maker of engines, power generation systems, and related technologies, have been outspoken critics of efforts to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage in the state. The ban “would send an unwelcoming message, not only to the LGBT community but also to anyone in an underrepresented demographic considering employment with our company,” says spokesman Blair Claflin, global diversity communications manager. A workforce that reflects the cultural makeup of the markets where Cummins operates helps maintain contracts, he asserts. And the company’s advocacy has moved beyond the political: Cummins played an integral role with other regional companies in the July launch of a central Indiana chapter of Out & Equal, a nonprofit addressing LGBT workplace issues.
Pharmaceutical giant Merck also has taken an active role in working with gay and lesbian nonprofits. Aside from offering equal spousal benefits, including adoption assistance and health care, to all of its 60,000-plus employees, Merck has partnerships with Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays as well as the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. PFLAG helps develop and facilitate trainings with Merck employees, while the company taps GLSEN to teach children about the impact of school bullying at company-sponsored public events.
As part of its supplier diversity program, Coca-Cola seeks out certified gay-owned businesses, and it limits its suppliers to those that protect employees through either an equal employment opportunity or nondiscrimination policy. The company also partners with other national and local organizations to establish and endow scholarships and sponsor conventions and meetings.
Adopt a family-minded mentality.
The era of hiding a family portrait in one’s office desk drawer—rather than proudly displaying it on a desktop—is quickly fading. As gay workers with spouses and children become more willing to talk about their families to colleagues, companies have an added responsibility to ensure a supportive atmosphere.
In 1992, Levi Strauss became the first Fortune 500 company to extend partner benefits to its LGBT employees, and it has since kept pace with progressive policies in the apparel world and beyond. Levi’s offers each of its 10,000 employees a $3,000 credit per child toward eligible adoption expenses as well as a backup child care program that employees can use if they have difficulties making their own arrangements. “While we can’t put a number on it, we hear from recruiters that this commitment makes a huge difference for potential employees,” a company spokeswoman says.
Credit Suisse offers two programs for new mothers and fathers—gay or straight—in which participants discuss issues like family leave time, parenting, adoption, and child care options. Credit Suisse’s goal is to have all employees go through LGBT-focused trainings by the end of next year, says Todd Sears, Credit Suisse’s director of diversity and inclusion. “I think that’s one of the best ways I’ve seen to make sure that the corporate policies translate directly into corporate actions and an inclusive culture.”