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The State of the Workplace for LGBT Americans

Corporations Are Driving Change Where the Government Is Not

The State of the Workplace for LGBT Americans

By Robert DiGiacomo, for Yahoo! HotJobs

Workplace laws protecting LGBT workers continue to evolve, but one constant remains: Federal law does not protect workers from being fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and a bill to enact such protections (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA) remains stalled in Congress.

Legal Challenges

Currently, in 29 states, a person may still lose his job for being gay. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not covered by the federal laws that generally prohibit private-employer discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age and disability. And it is still permissible in 38 states for transgender workers to be fired because of their gender identity. (The law in these areas is constantly changing; numerous legislative efforts at national and local levels are in progress at this writing.)

The Defense of Marriage Act further limits the federal government's ability to extend certain benefits to LGBT workers.

Although 21 states and dozens of municipalities have added LGBT-inclusive workplace-protection laws to their books, it has been the corporate sector that has helped drive many positive changes for LGBT employees over the past few decades.

Good Corporate Citizens

In 2002, when the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) issued its first report card on corporate policies pertaining to LGBT workers, slightly more than a dozen major companies got a perfect score, according to Eric Bloem, deputy director of the HRC's Workplace Project.

In 2010, more than 300 corporations reached the highest level, meaning they have a nondiscrimination policy inclusive of LGBT workers, offer domestic-partner benefits and meet other criteria.

"More and more companies are understanding this is the right thing to do to have a successful business, with regards to recruitment and retention, and keeping the talent they need," Bloem says.

Among the industries that have stepped up their LGBT diversity efforts are automotive, aviation, manufacturing and law firms. (Many unions also include antidiscrimination provisions, which may include sexual orientation, in their contracts). Some engineering and construction firms remain difficult environments for LGBT workers, as do the advertising and clothing industries, according to Bloem.

Diversity as Recruiting Tactic

At the global consulting firm KPMG, LGBT-friendly policies are part of an inclusive culture that supports national diversity networks for women and minority groups.

The firm sees this LGBT support as a key recruiting and retention tool and a way to help attract business from similarly minded clients.

Such an approach "should be and needs to be incorporated into day-to-day business because our clients expect it," says Tim Stiles, co-chair of the 450-member Pride@KPMG group and a partner in the firm. "It's about inclusion and not about diversity."

American Airlines, which launched the LGBT employee group GLEAM in 1994 and has been a leader among its peers with its LGBT policies, takes a similar view that a diverse workplace is good for business, according to Denise Lynn, vice president of onboard services, who most recently was responsible for diversity and leadership strategies.

The airline considers its commitment to its LGBT workers as part of a continuum that has included hiring the first black flight attendant in 1963, naming the first female pilot a decade later and introducing multicultural marketing teams in the 1990s.

"Respecting and providing equal treatment for our LGBT workforce is actually part of our DNA," Lynn says.

Setting LGBT Goals at Your Job

Changing corporate culture around major issues like LGBT rights usually doesn't happen overnight. If you'd like to see changes in this area at your employer, here are some first steps:

  • Determine the potential consequences of coming out on the job and taking steps to bring together other LGBT or LGBT-friendly colleagues. Bloem advises asking yourself, "Is there a nondiscrimination policy in the workplace? Do you have any coverage under the law?"   
  • Set goals, whether you're looking to add domestic-partner benefits, develop new policies, network and/or help with recruiting, Stiles says.
  • Get key executives to sign on to your effort. "You have to have senior leaders who are champions," Stiles says.
  • Review policies, training manuals and workplace practices to ensure that they are "inclusive and sensitive" to the needs of customers and employees, Lynn advises.
  • Once policies are in place, use surveys or other research to determine whether they are having their intended effect on the entire company.

"It's easy to have a nondiscrimination policy implemented at the corporate headquarters," Bloem says. "The question remains whether it filters down into field offices or manufacturing plants, and [it's important] to understand what's going on in those locations."

If you feel you have suffered sexual-orientation discrimination, you may want to consult with an attorney, governmental agency or personnel office to learn more about any protections that may apply to you.

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