US companies see the benefits of gay-friendly policies

Corporate America is the latest battleground for one of the country’s cultural clashes. Despite a host of anti-discriminatory measures for age, sex, disability, ethnic background and religion, no federal laws exist to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

According to campaign group Out and Equal Workplace Advocates, 35 states allow companies to fire employees based on sexual orientation. Organisations must determine themselves if they need such policies.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) civil rights organisation ranks companies on gay-friendly efforts, ranging from written harassment policies to gay-targeted advertising. Some 81% of corporations reviewed offered health benefits to domestic partners, and many firms include language about “gender identity or expression” in their discrimination policies, covering transgender workers.

Defence giant Raytheon recently added such language to its already inclusive discrimination policies. While gay-friendly companies attract gay clients – annual American gay purchasing power is estimated at $641bn (£350bn) – the missile maker is safe from accusations of pandering.

Adding gender identity to equality policy at Raytheon was “matching the talk with the walk,” said Raytheon’s chief diversity officer Hayward Bell, in the HRC report. Regardless of its progressive and open tone however, Raytheon declined to comment – a reminder that the issue is a sensitive political one.

The Ford Motor Company recently encouraged shareholders to defeat a motion demanding removal of protections for gay workers, after a year-long scuffle with conservative groups that launched boycotts.

A similar resolution at American Express citing “illegal sex acts” met a comparable defeat. The company played no role in getting shareholders to trounce the motion, but the company’s culture is widely known, said Bet Franzone, HR public affairs manager. “It’s not a political thing; it’s just a matter of creating an inclusive work environment. Of course, not everyone is going to be happy.”

The company’s individual treatment policy is “very broad and very, very explicit,” said Franzone. “It includes sexual orientation and gender identity.” The latter was recently added, although there was no clamouring for it. The firm watches the market and organisations that track company policies. She adds that a new HR training module on “cultural nuances” will be rolled out worldwide to “bolster an extensive diversity-training environment”.

The New York-based company led the financial services sector when it began offering same-sex partner benefits in 1997, after employee groups worked alongside senior management to come up with solid analysis and data to shore up the move to partner benefits.

“They demonstrated what the costs and benefits would be,” said Franzone. “There could easily be a financial services company next door offering something better, so of course this is very important for employee retention.”

Indeed, with private healthcare and a benefit-crazed economy, such coverage is an inexpensive and simple means to reduce turnover. More than half of gay American workers in a recent survey felt such policies were critical in deciding where to work. “This isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue,” said HRC president Joe Solmonese. “It’s an issue of basic fairness and good business. An investment in equal benefits is minor to the employer but priceless to employees.”

ExxonMobil shareholders have repeatedly shunned explicit protection for homosexual or transgender employees in company anti-discrimination policies. Spokesperson Russ Roberts said the oil giant already has “zero-tolerance discrimination and harassment policies that are comprehensive in nature, rigorously enforced, and applicable to all employees wherever the company operates in the world”.

“These written policies prohibit discrimination or harassment for any reason, including sexual orientation,” he said.

Rarely are such arguments based on profitability or fair division of entitlements: they are almost exclusively couched in terms of values and corporate image.

America’s religious right has staked claim in all facets of American life, and workplace opposition groups are emboldened by the US government’s “family values” mantra, while persistently promoting constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

But gay-rights proponents are optimistic: an Out and Equal study found a majority of heterosexual adults (61%) believe companies – not government – should decide what benefits to offer employees and their partners, and most feel that all employees are entitled to equal benefits.

“By removing barriers to employee success, corporate America is ultimately removing barriers to the success of companies across the nation,” Solmonese said.

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