Employers Expanding Equality

A record number of employers have earned a perfect score on the 2018 Corporate Equality Index, according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the educational arm of the Washington-based LGBTQ civil-rights organization that compiles the annual report. CEI’s top score of 100 was awarded to 609 businesses, an increase of 18 percent over last year.

“The Corporate Equality Index has become the baseline measure for recognizing LGBTQ equality in the workplace,” says Paul Smithivas, an inclusion and diversity consultant in the Chicago office of Willis Towers Watson. “It symbolizes that the employer values inclusion and provides a safe working environment for employees to bring their whole self to work.”

The irony of a record-breaking number of perfect scores coinciding with the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency hasn’t escaped HRC leadership, who characterize a number of actions taken by the new president and his administration as blatantly anti-LGBTQ. These include what the HRC characterizes as a “systematic dismantling” of Obama-era protections for LGBTQ people, the effort to ban transgender troops and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement that the administration will not enforce nondiscrimination protections for transgender workers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“At a time when the rights of LGBTQ people are under attack by the Trump-Pence administration and state legislatures across the country, hundreds of top American companies are driving progress toward equality in the workplace,” says Chad Griffin, president of HRC. “American principles are being tested. That’s why it’s especially remarkable that this year has ushered in a new high watermark in LGBTQ workplace inclusion.”

While the Trump administration is largely viewed as less accepting of the LGBTQ community than the previous administration, government has always lagged behind the public sector in terms of LGBTQ protections, according to Beck Bailey, deputy director of employee engagement for the organization’s workplace equality program. Even now, he says, the LGBTQ community is not explicitly protected by federal non-discrimination law, but employers are increasingly bridging the gap by instituting workplace policies and protections for their employees.

“Employers understand the value of having a diverse workforce and with a record-breaking number of perfect scores, we see employers continuing to re-evaluate their programs to address the needs of a changing workforce,” says Smithivas.

Employers participating in the Index are rated on four key pillars: non-discrimination policies across business entities; equitable benefits for LGBTQ workers and their families; internal education and accountability metrics to promote LGBTQ inclusion competency; and public commitment to LGBTQ equality.

The most significant progress has been the wide-scale adoption of transgender-inclusive initiatives. Ninety-seven percent of CEI-participating companies have explicit gender identity non-discrimination protections, which 79 percent offer transgender-inclusive health care coverage. Over the past year, Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy, one of this year’s perfect-scoring companies, expanded its healthcare coverage to include transition-related treatment and other medically necessary services for transgender people, according to LaTonya King, director of diversity and inclusion. None of the participating companies offered such coverage when the CEI launched in 2002.

Indeed, the landscape for LGBTQ people has changed dramatically since 2002, according to Bailey. At that point, no states had enacted marriage-equality laws and Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark Supreme Court decision that made same-sex sexual activity legal in every U.S. state and territory, had not yet been decided. As progress is made, Bailey says, the criteria by which the CEI rates employers evolves, but the HRC is careful to ensure that any new criteria enacted is attainable.

Take transgender-inclusive healthcare. In 2002, such coverage was essentially non-existent. Even then, the HRC asked CEI participants about the subject and collected the data, but didn’t put it into place as a scored mechanism until 2011, when such coverage was considered to be sufficiently available for employers to purchase.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., Steelcase Inc. has earned a perfect score for the past four years. Employees of the office, hospital, and classroom furniture manufacturer recently founded Steelcase Pride, an employee resource group that celebrates and supports LGBTQ diversity through “stories, conversation, and community,” according to Laurent Bernard, vice president of global talent management. The group has hosted events such as a beach potluck, an on-campus art tour, and TED Talk lunches. During Pride Month, the group invited employees, customers, and guests to share their photos and stories of love on a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard. Bernard says such efforts are making Steelcase a more inclusive workplace.

While Radnor, Pa.-based Lincoln Financial Group takes great pride in its third consecutive perfect score, Executive Vice President and CHRO Lisa Buckingham is quick to point out that her company–and others–are not fighting for quality and inclusive practices for the recognition, but to “make it possible for employees to bring their whole selves to work.” While enacting policies is essential, Buckingham says fostering an inclusive workplace also involves engaging employees and offering a variety of diversity and inclusion training and education. She advises companies to start a dialogue with employees and “listen to members and allies of the LGBTQ community about how we can work together to build the business and support one another.”

Sometimes, fostering open dialogue is easier said than done, says Smithivas, and requires a careful approach that ensures all employees are treated with respect.

“The challenge lies in ensuring that organizations have a workplace that is inclusive of all people, while also understanding that this may go against some employees’ personal and religious beliefs,” says Smithivas. “It is a fine line to ensure that employers are sensitive to all opinions and respectful of all individuals.”

For those organizations that have already achieved a perfect score, Bailey says that’s just the beginning. While the CEI is focused on workplace policy and benefits, it can’t wholly account for culture. Thus, many of the top-scoring companies are undertaking initiatives to ensure they are building a “truly vibrant inclusive culture and climate.” Duke Energy, for example, is working to create a culture where employees are comfortable self-identifying as LGBTQ.

Other organizations are learning the hard way that maintaining a perfect score can be just as difficult as earning it in the first place. In November, Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart Inc. had its perfect score suspended by the HRC in response to EEOC determinations that transgender employees were harassed at Sam’s Club locations in Florida and North Carolina. While Bailey stresses that his organization has a strong relationship with Walmart and is eager to hear how the retail chain plans to “address the challenges that have been uncovered in those determination letters,” he believes there is a lesson to be learned from Walmart’s fall from grace.

“The Walmart situation is distinct in that there are back-to-back EEO determinations that point to a systemic failure to enforce the non-discrimination policy,” says Bailey. “It’s one thing to have a policy, it’s another to have it holistically enforced and supported within the organization.”

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Julie Cook Ramirez
Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at [email protected].