HR Administration

The Last Word: Pride vs. Prejudice

By Ronald Alsop

Mar. 11, 2011

Little League Baseball obeys a court ruling and admits girls for the first time. The first black model graces the cover of Vogue. Amid much controversy, the first women are ordained as Episcopal priests. And the first bill to protect gay individuals from employment discrimination is introduced in Congress.

That was America in 1974—a time when barriers to equal opportunity were falling fast. Unfortunately, one of them didn’t fall—and still hasn’t. More than 35 years later, gays cannot count on federal protection from discriminatory employment practices. Indeed, gays who were just beginning their careers back in 1974 are still vulnerable to workplace homophobia—even as they now near retirement age.

This month’s lead Outfront article explores how, once again, gay advocacy groups plan to push for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA. Given the more conservative makeup of the current Congress, this still might not be ENDA’s year. But gay employees can take some comfort in the fact that corporate America has proven to be more enlightened and progressive than many lawmakers.

The vast majority of Fortune 500 corporations have added sexual orientation to their nondiscrimination policies, and a growing number are including gender identity, as well. What’s more, roughly 80 major employers have publicly pledged their support for ENDA. Aside from the basic issues of equality and fairness, many companies realize that a diverse workforce is critical to success both in attracting talent and marketing their products.

As Rick Moran, executive sponsor of Cisco Systems’ gay and transgender employee network, told Workforce Management: “We know that when we’re going out recruiting, a lot of employees, especially our younger employees, are looking for what our policies are on inclusion and diversity. So, we are pretty forward with that. We also know that a lot of our customers have very strong diversity practices, as well. They often come to us and ask what our inclusion and diversity policy is, so it’s very important from a business perspective.”

Some companies specifically target potential gay recruits. A few years ago, I attended the annual Reaching Out MBA conference at Columbia University, where representatives of such blue-chip companies as Citigroup, Ford, IBM, and McKinsey networked with gay students from across the country. S.C. Johnson & Son, the household products-maker, even invited students to interview for brand management jobs during the conference.

More companies also aim advertising at the gay community, but it isn’t enough simply to create a rainbow campaign featuring same-sex couples. Savvy marketers realize many gay consumers check out corporate workplace ratings before buying. The Human Rights Campaign, for example, compiles Corporate Equality Index scores and lists them in its Buying for Workplace Equality guide. The scores are largely based on employment practices, including nondiscrimination policies, partner benefits and diversity training. Deloitte, Subaru, DuPont and other companies issue news releases when they rate a perfect 100 in the equality index; a few big brand names, including Starbucks and Coors, have even touted their diversity policies in advertising targeted to gay consumers.

Gay-inclusive employment policies can influence not only consumers, but also business customers. In a recent survey of 1,400 gay business managers by the research firm Community Marketing, 70 percent said they would likely give preference to gay-owned or gay-friendly vendors when making purchasing decisions. It isn’t surprising then that companies sometimes enlist members of their gay employee resource groups to help with their business-to-business marketing.

To be sure, some companies remain skittish about being too visible in their outreach efforts. There’s always the risk of a boycott. I once wrote an article about Subaru’s gay-themed ad campaign. The same day the story was published, a right-wing group threatened to boycott the automaker, but the protest never gained any steam. Just last year, the American Family Association announced a boycott of Home Depot because of its support of gay pride festivals. The conservative organization took to calling the retailer “The Homosexual Depot,” but the company didn’t cave to the cheap shots.

Regardless of ENDA’s fate, it’s the corporate trailblazers who will continue to have the greatest impact in making gays feel welcome and safe at work and in expanding their career opportunities. Employers can’t necessarily change people’s deep-seated prejudices, but senior executives can make it clear that there is zero tolerance for bias and bullying within their workplaces. Meanwhile, let’s hope that ENDA becomes law before yet another generation of gays retires from the workforce.

Workforce Management, March 2011, p. 42Subscribe Now!

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