TV & Radio
Posted on Mon, Sep. 05, 2005
Success seen in bid to ban sexual-orientation bias
By Joseph A. Slobodzian
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
It's been a rough 12 months for many in the gay community after last year's national elections, in which some politicians used same-sex marriage as a polarizing - and sometimes effective - campaign tactic.
So Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Equality Forum, the Philadelphia-based advocacy group for sexual minorities, often takes his victories where he finds them. And this Labor Day, Lazin says, there are reasons for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers to celebrate.
After just two years, the Equality Forum and several companion groups have obtained commitments from 92 percent of the Fortune 500 companies - or 460 of the 500 companies - that their corporate policies prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Gains in the last two years mean an additional 10 million U.S. workers - and the sexual minorities among them - are now governed by policies barring sexual-orientation bias.
Many people do not realize that sexual orientation has never been added to civil-rights laws prohibiting employment discrimination. The courts have thus far declined to infer that Congress intended to bar sexual-orientation discrimination, and these days amending the law is not anywhere near the top of Congress' agenda.
Sixteen states have laws prohibiting sexual-orientation discrimination in the workplace. New Jersey prohibits such discrimination for both public and private employees. Pennsylvania and Delaware protect only public workers.
Dan Miller, 49, a Harrisburg accountant, learned that the hard way in 1990 when he was fired from a private firm after being seen on television as a spokesman at a gay civil-rights event.
Not only did Miller have no ability to sue - his boss said he was fired because he had publicly acknowledged his homosexuality - but Miller himself was sued for opening his own firm.
Miller wound up paying a $153,400 jury award to his former boss for violating a broad "no-compete clause" in his contract, an award affirmed through the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I was very naive," said Miller, who has his own accounting firm in Harrisburg and this year was nominated by both parties for a seat on Harrisburg City Council. He will run as each party's candidate in November.
Lazin said he hoped the Equality Forum's Fortune 500 Project helped to end the legislative inertia.
"Congress clearly is not in the lead on this issue, although public-opinion polls show that 77 [percent] to 88 percent of the American people support laws barring workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation," Lazin said. "Now we have 92 percent of the Fortune 500 companies saying they believe it's a good business practice."
When the Equality Forum first contacted the 500 largest U.S. companies on Fortune magazine's list, in 2003, Lazin said it found that 323, or 65 percent, already prohibited sexual-orientation discrimination.
Within six months, 78 percent of the Fortune 500 were on board, Lazin said, and by last Labor Day, the number had crept up to 80 percent.
Of those companies that do not prohibit sexual-orientation discrimination, Lazin said, the greatest percentage is in Texas (11 of 48 Fortune 500 companies).
All 27 Fortune 500 companies in Pennsylvania include sexual orientation in antidiscrimination policies, as do all 24 in New Jersey and both in Delaware.
Lazin attributes much of this year's increase in "compliant companies" to a collaboration the Equality Forum began in June with two nationally known corporate-management experts: Louis Thomas, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Ian Ayres, William K. Townsend Professor at Yale University Law School.
They had research showing that a corporate policy banning sexual-orientation bias was good for business - and shareholders.
And they came equipped with graduate students who researched the Fortune 500 holdouts to learn who were the best company officials to contact on the issue.
"Clearly, we reached the right people," Penn's Thomas said.
In a few cases, Lazin said, the Equality Forum got more than it asked for. When officials of Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp. called last year, Lazin said, they told him they had adopted the policy and would begin offering domestic-partner benefits.
About half of the Fortune 500 companies offer such benefits, Lazin said.
Thomas said his research showed that gays and lesbians are happier and more productive in the workplace when they are sure that knowledge of their sexual orientation will not hurt their careers.
And in a tight market, Thomas said, such a policy can reduce a company's recruitment costs.
"I think we were able to prove this was not a form of corporate largesse but an issue in the best interests of the shareholders," Thomas said, adding, "You can't afford to have high-quality senior employees leave over this."
Lazin said the Equality Forum had not given up on the final 40 on the Fortune 500 list. Among the research conducted by Thomas, Ayres and students were corporate and shareholder rules for submitting proxy statements to shareholders at the companies' annual meetings.
Lazin said the forum had already contacted the 25 largest institutional investors, mutual funds, investment managers, university endowments and pension funds to support proxy statements requesting sexual-orientation protection.
Thomas said the proxy statements would at least force corporate officials to address the issue.
And Thomas said he thought the Equality Forum's publishing of the list of "compliant" and "noncompliant" companies on its Web site - www.equalityforum.com/
fortune500/ - "will make the task of saying 'no' more difficult. It's like peer pressure: Why am I not doing this when my own competitors are?"
No Protections For Gay Workers
Only 40 companies in the Fortune 500 do not include "sexual orientation" in their employee nondiscrimination policies. Among them are:
• Advance Auto Parts
• AK Steel Holding Corp.
• Anadarko Petroleum Corp.
• Collins & Aikman Corp.
• Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.
• EchoStar Communications Corp.
• Eastman Chemical Co.
• Exxon Mobil Corp.
• Family Dollar Stores Inc.
• Halliburton Co.
• Kerr-McGee Corp.
• Liberty Media Corp.
• Liberty Mutual Insurance
• Micron Technology Inc.
• Pilgrim's Pride Corp.
• Wendy's Int'l Inc.
• Yellow Roadway Corp.
Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or firstname.lastname@example.org.