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We’re About To See If Employers Can Protect LGBT Workers When The Government Won’t

The White House and state legislators have made it clear they won’t protect LGBT employment rights, but some businesses are fighting back.

We’re About To See If Employers Can Protect LGBT Workers When The Government Won’t
[Photo: Flickr user mathiaswasik]

This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.

Late last month, a leaked draft of an executive order from the Trump Administration hinted that the Oval Office was considering granting federal contractors a sweeping license to fire or refuse to hire lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people on the basis of religious belief. Two days later, amid intense public backlash, the White House said it had shelved the order.

But it was a clear signal that Trump and his allies considered compromising LGBT Americans’ civil rights, and still might do so, despite overwhelming evidence that policies allowing businesses to discriminate are bad for those very businesses. So now companies face a test: As the government backs away from protecting LGBT workers, will their employers continue to step up and do so instead?

Discrimination Has No Winners

So far, there’s reason for measured optimism. States that have passed anti-LGBT laws in recent years, like North Carolina, have suffered fierce blowback. By one estimate, HB2 has cost the state between $77 million and $201 million in tourism and tax revenue alone. It also cost Governor Pat McCrory his job. As a result, politicians and business leaders see North Carolina and McCrory as a cautionary tale. In fact, the NCAA now requires potential host cities and counties to fill out a questionnaire that includes this question: “Does your city, county/parish, and/or state have provisions that allow for refusal of accommodations or service to any person?”

While nondiscrimination laws may spook legislators, companies large and small agree that diversity is good for business. Good managers and entrepreneurs all know what gets results: Create a shared vision, build a great team, create an open atmosphere for creativity, and attract and retain great employees. And business owners know that they’re most successful when they serve the public—and that means all of the public.

According to an April 2015 poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the political think tank the Center for American Progress, two-thirds of small business owners said companies shouldn’t be able to deny goods or services to LGBT customers based on the owner’s religious beliefs. And 59% of small business owners opposed laws allowing individuals, associations, or businesses to legally refuse service to anyone because of their own faith.

Today, many corporations are putting these beliefs into practice by drawing up policies to protect their LGBT employees. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI), 82% of Fortune 500 companies have explicit nondiscrimination policies covering sexual orientation and gender identity. And with transgender issues in the spotlight, many businesses are focusing on ways to support their transgender employees in particular. It actually isn’t that difficult:

  • Update nondiscrimination policies. Make sure whatever protections your company has in place when it comes to gender, race, and sexual orientation also explicitly include gender identity.
  • Provide inclusive health care for employees. 50% of Fortune 500 and 73% of CEI businesses offer transgender-inclusive health care coverage.
  • Offer to educate. 86% of CEI-rated businesses have training programs that specifically include gender identity in the workplace.
  • Adopt guidelines to support inclusion. 387 major businesses have adopted gender-transition guidelines for employees and their teams, so there’s already no shortage of examples for best practices (this organization has some useful resources).

Fighting Discrimination Doesn’t Have To Be Political

Many of these inclusive businesses aren’t located in blue-state bubbles. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, five of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies with high scores for equality–including Chevron, General Motors, Ford, and Walmart–are headquartered in states with few legal protections for LGBT people.

Nor are companies moving forward alone; they’re putting their money where their mouths are and urging governments to keep up. When businesses in Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas learned of discriminatory legislation in their states, they were among the first voices to reject that legislation. In response to a sweeping anti-LGBT bill, SB 6, the Texas Competes coalition of more than 1,200 businesses came forward to support LGBT protections. The group is now warning that Texas could lose up to $1 billion if the state passes the measure.

Tennessee Thrives, another coalition of businesses like the Hospital Corporation of America, FedEx, Jack Daniels, and Country Music Television, is calling on the state to oppose a proposed law that would allow mental health counselors to refuse patients treatment based on the therapist’s religious or personal beliefs. And last year, the outcry against Georgia’s proposed bill, HB 757, which would have given faith-based organizations in Georgia the option to deny services to LGBT people, came from giants like Salesforce, Apple, Microsoft, Disney, Intel, and Home Depot. All urged the governor to veto the bill. And he listened.

We’re about to learn whether the business consensus in favor of diversity can win over state and government officials who oppose it. That seems like it should be a no-brainer, but it won’t be easy. A newly released report by my organization, the Movement Equality Project, finds that the majority of states don’t have laws protecting transgender people from discrimination in the workplace, housing, and public places.

And several states, like North Carolina, have recently passed anti-LGBT laws that support letting businesses turn away customers and even fire LGBT employees. More are now considering bills that would limit bathroom access for transgender people and make it impossible for them to update identity documents, among other restrictions.

But while state legislators and federal bureaucrats spend time worrying about who’s using which bathroom, businesses can and must affirm what they already know works. By standing firmly against anti-transgender discrimination in the public sphere and creating a positive, transgender-inclusive environment in the workplace, companies can protect both their employees and their profits.

Because ultimately, this isn’t just about the bottom line. When workers are judged on their skills and creativity, and not how they identify or whom they love, everyone wins. When our communities create level playing fields where everyone has the chance to thrive, that isn’t “getting political”—it’s the American dream, and it’s good business.


Ineke Mushovic is the executive director of the Movement Advancement Project.

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