People@Work: American Companies Keep Getting More Gay-Friendly

In recent years, workplaces have become increasingly friendlier places for a greater number of workers. As companies compete for the best and brightest talent, many employers have revamped corporate policies to include language and programs that create safer and more welcoming work environments for a broad range of groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.Given the economic turmoil caused by the Great Recession, which has pushed the national unemployment rate to around 10%, it might seem that companies could forgo such outreach because the nation's current pool of available talent is as broad and deep as it has been in many years. But despite challenging economic times, more employers than ever are finding reasons to adopt LGBT-friendly policies, a recent survey shows.

"The private sector has realized that treating all of its employees fairly is actually a better way to create a productive workforce and to attract the best and brightest employees, regardless of their background," says Daryl Herrschaft, director of the Workplace Project at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a gay-advocacy organization.

A Wide Variety of Top-Scoring Companies

More than 300 Fortune 1000 companies this year achieved a perfect score (100) on a rating system HRC has developed, known as the Corporate Equality Index. That's an increase of 45 companies compared to last year, and a more than 20-fold jump since the CEI was established in 2002. The survey gathers information from employers on a host of workplace issues such as nondiscrimination policies, diversity training and benefits that provide parity among same-sex and different-sex couples and then assigns a score.

The companies that achieved the top score this year are as varied as Boeing (BA), Ford Motor (F), Goldman Sachs (GS), Constellation Energy (CEG), Time Warner (TWX), Anheuser-Busch (BUD), Campbell Soup (CPB), Dow Chemical (DOW), Dell (DELL), Apple (AAPL), Xerox (XRX), Microsoft (MSFT), Accenture (ACN), IBM (IBM), Marsh & McLennan (MMC), UnitedHealth (UNH), Chevron (CVX) and many others.

"Competition has really driven a lot of interest in the index," says Herrschaft, adding that companies don't want to fall behind in the marketplace -- of either employees or customers. The goal of HRC's Workplace Project isn't just to rate companies but to provide them with robust resources to implement policies that the CEI examines. "Rather than just administer the survey, we work with them extensively," Herrschaft says.

A Few Holdouts

Still, some large corporations have been reluctant to adopt LGBT-friendly polices. In announcing its ratings this year, HRC noted two in particular: energy companies the Laclede Group (LG) and ExxonMobil (XOM), both of which scored zero. ExxonMobil continues to lose points, HRC says, "for resisting shareholder pressure to amend its nondiscrimination policies."

Rather than adopt policies similar to those of competitors, ExxonMobil continues to use federal government employee policies as its benchmark, Herrschaft says. But those standards are long outdated. Uncle Sam had previously set the precedent for advancing employment policies by passing laws that prohibited job discrimination based on a number of characteristics. But in recent decades, corporations have taken the lead in promoting and advancing workplace equality.

Today, the federal government would likely score only 40 or 50 on the CEI index, says Herrschaft, noting that it can't earn a score on some measures, such as philanthropic engagement, for example. Still, Herrschaft says the federal government is "creeping up on the scale," noting that its score is higher than it was just a year ago, when it would have received a score of about 25.

Herrschaft says federal and state governments have been slow in adopting the best employment practices -- or even the mainstream ones that most major U.S. corporations have. That puts states and Uncle Sam at a disadvantage in retaining top talent to meet the challenges most governments face these days.

Uncle Sam Needs to Lead

Further, if the federal government, as the nation's largest employer, were to improve its employment policies, the action would likely cascade to the private sector. Companies that hadn't yet moved on the issue would likely reconsider, Herrschaft says.

Still, it won't be easy. Updating federal employment policies would in many instances require an act of Congress, he says, "which is something that HRC is actively working on."

But in the meantime, LGBT workers can at least take pride in knowing their skills and talents are increasingly being recognized within the private sector.
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