Even when LGBT Pride Parade is over, corporations should keep marching against discrimination

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By Elizabeth Kristen

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands lined Market Street and watched the corporate contingents as they marched in San Francisco’s annual LGBT Pride Parade.  The corporate banners and legions of marching employees are testament to how companies are trying hard to appear that they have “come out” as pro-LGBT rights.  Other signs of change can be seen in the recent corporate advertising campaigns featuring LGBT couples and families.  This kind of corporate support for LGBT equality and the integration of the LGBT community into the mainstream has undoubtedly been a forceful engine for change.  But the majority of LGBT workers are still afraid to come out fully in their places of work and they continue to face harassment and discrimination.

Given the long wait for a federal non-discrimination law, what can employers do to welcome LGBT employees and keep them safe?  A critical component that should be familiar to every HR manager is promoting a positive, inclusive LGBT workplace culture. Fortunately, according to a recent study, most employee resource groups have already achieved this. 67% of LGBT employees feel “very welcomed” by their employee resource group, while only 2% feel either “not too welcomed” or “rejected.” But this leaves a substantial middle ground that companies can improve on by making overtures to LGBT employees, while taking an emphatic stance against offensive comments, jokes, and policies.

Implementation of pro-LGBT personnel policies is also important, as it addresses important concerns for LGBT employees while also familiarizing non-LGBT people with LGBT needs. Companies that want to demonstrate their commitment should also provide benefits to compensate for legal inequalities that same-sex couples face, as Google did in 2010, and cover important gender confirmation surgery for interested transgender individuals.

Some statistics also tell the story of how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

  • 91% of Fortune 500 companies have extended workplace protections to cover sexual orientation, up from 61% in 2002.
  • For transgender individuals, the proportion is only 61% as of 2014.  That number is up from 3% in 2002, but still falls short.

Policies on paper are not enough to change a workplace, however.  Real cultural shifts only come with action, including action at the top of the corporate ladder.  Employers who mandate LGBT sensitivity in workplace training alongside race, sex, national origin, disability and other characteristics are making the welcome message clear.  And those who implement gender neutral bathrooms are putting into everyday practice a respect for the diversity of their workforce. And though homophobic objections are becoming more and more marginalized, companies and/or their CEO’s can repudiate them publicly, in a way that will convey to both employees and consumers that the company stands by its commitment to the LGBT community.

Despite the fantastic victories achieved, the fight for LGBT rights and inclusivity is far from over. Workplaces have a role to play in that fight. Workplace managers should take pride in what progress they have facilitated, yet remain attentive to the challenges that remain. Just because June’s LGBT Pride Month is over, there is no reason to stop marching towards pro-LGBT workplaces.

Elizabeth Kristen

About Elizabeth Kristen

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.  Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid.  Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow.  She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008. Legal Aid at Work together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

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