Gay group claims victory in Wal-Mart policy change

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com July 03 2003 11:00 PM ET

The Pride Foundation, a Seattle-based philanthropic group for gay and lesbian issues, spent more than two years talking with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. about changing its company policy to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The foundation was preparing to draft a shareholders' resolution to further pressure the Bentonville, Ark.-based company. Then word came that Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer and private employer, was making the change voluntarily. The company announced Wednesday that it is including gays and lesbians among groups protected by its antidiscrimination policy. "We assumed we would be working on Wal-Mart for quite a while," said Zan McColloch-Lussier, campaign director for the Pride Foundation. The group owns some Wal-Mart stock and had expected to write a proposal for shareholders. "We are quite proud that we did not need to do that," he said.

The change resulted in part from external pressure but also from Wal-Mart workers, who have long urged the company to make the change, company spokesman Tom Williams said. "It's the right thing to do," he said. "The issue was that everyone feel valued and treated with respect...no exceptions at all." The success bolsters the Pride Foundation and those who assisted in the Wal-Mart campaign, including Trillium Asset Management and Walden Asset Management, both of Boston. All three groups are members of the Equality Project, a New York-based coalition of funds, investors, and others that seek to change corporate policy with the voice that comes from being a shareholder--even a small one. The groups now are considering where to focus their energies next.

With Wal-Mart's conversion, nine of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies expressly include sexual orientation in their antidiscrimination policies, said Shelley Alpern, an assistant vice president at Trillium. The exception is ExxonMobil Corp., she said. ExxonMobil, which is based in Irving, Tex., issued a statement Wednesday saying it does not plan to add the language and believes its "intentionally broad" policy clearly bans discrimination on any basis, including sexual orientation. In May, shareholders of the oil giant defeated a resolution to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.