Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Pride Media.
When I first started volunteering for the Human Rights Campaign over 20 years ago, as a lesbian in the advertising industry, I saw that companies were pulling their ads from Ellen after the star came out. Only a handful of companies would even market to our community — and pretty much only at bars, in LGBTQ+ magazines, or during Pride Month.
At my employer, as was the case inside many employers, our primary challenge was making companies themselves safe for LGBTQ+ people. It was the whole premise behind the HRC Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index — pushing for nondiscrimination policies that explicitly included sexual orientation and gender identity, for parity in benefits, for diversity training, and for some recognition of our community in marketing or philanthropic support — even if it was only in queer spaces. Earning a 100 meant that companies were meeting a very high standard for employee care — in the first year of the CEI, only 13 companies earned that score. Over time, HRC began awarding companies that met that high bar the distinction “Best Place to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality.”
The CEI is very important; it holds companies and their leadership accountable and ensures that LGBTQ+ people get the workplace benefits they need. And we are so grateful to the leaders at hundreds of companies who work with us every day to build inclusive environments for their LGBTQ+ employees — from small towns in the South to the Midwestern suburbs to large cities on the coasts.
But today’s employees and customers justifiably have higher expectations for their workplaces and the companies they do business with — and as a result, many companies are going well beyond the criteria we’ve established through the CEI. Over the years, we’ve mobilized companies in historic numbers to join amicus briefs, to speak out against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, to join our Business Coalition for the Equality Act, and to beat back bad bills both publicly and behind the scenes.
I understand the power of what earning that “Best Place to Work'' distinction means. I also recognize that it no longer takes into account the full spectrum of policies and practices that LGBTQ+ employees and customers expect from their employers. It’s why in our next Corporate Equality Index, we will still celebrate companies who score a 100, but we will no longer give them the designation of “Best Place to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality” based simply on their CEI score.
Instead, to incentivize our corporate allies to go even further, we’ll be annually recognizing those companies that go above and beyond the CEI’s benchmarks with an annual corporate champion award that will allow them to use the “Best Place to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality” logo. Companies earning this distinction must have a 100 on the CEI and will need to be bar setters for how companies can do even more — from taking a stand in the public square against elected officials harming LGBTQ+ youth to mitigating the harm of their products and services on our community. Importantly, to receive this award, they will need to be nominated by their workers.
We’re doing this because we know that our advocacy must meet this moment with new tools and new ways to recognize higher levels of commitment from our allies. Right now our members of our community, especially transgender and nonbinary people, are being attacked politically and physically at rates that remind me of when I first started my advocacy work decades ago. We are more out than ever before — with approximately 20 million LGBTQ+ people in the United States and one-fifth of Gen Z identifying openly as part of the community. And with this visibility comes backlash. They’re attacking kids in our community brave enough to be open in their schools in ways I couldn’t have even dreamed of at their ages. And they’re coming after companies that stand with us.
We know it is critical to continue to recognize companies that are often doing very hard work to ensure HR policies, insurance plans, and internal training are as inclusive as our CEI demands. In fact, this year we once again are growing our CEI requirements — pushing for more equity for trans-inclusive health insurance, family formation benefits, employee data collection, and diversity training. That 100 score on the CEI is still a powerful achievement and hugely important to workers — current and prospective. That is not changing.
But employees who see their company giving to extremist politicians, who see products being sold by their company that refute their existence, who hear lawmakers paint them as villains and are met by only silence from their companies, want “Best Place to Work” to mean more. We do too. Corporate social responsibility today is about going beyond HR plans and benefits. It’s about the business companies do and how their values carry through everything they do — from internal policies to products to politics.
Throughout the last two decades plus of our corporate advocacy work, it’s been the LGBTQ+ workers and allies inside companies who have helped us pave the way, to raise the bar of expectations and achieve more together than we ever could have alone. We salute all of the employees who have led the charge and those who continue to push for a new model of corporate citizenship. We stand with you in your activism, encourage you to keep pushing harder, and walk beside you in pursuit of a world where no LGBTQ+ person is anything less than equal in our laws, our communities, and our workplaces.
Joni Madison is the interim president of the Human Rights Campaign.