Companies confront US policymakers on gay and trans laws

Businesses step up fight for LGBT rights, taking on Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina
Bathroom ban: North Carolina law blocks trans people © Getty

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While gay marriage is legal in all US states, the same cannot be said for equality in the workplace, where LGBT workers in many states still lack protections. The upshot is that companies that have worked to treat employees equally are becoming vocal about discriminatory laws.

For a mature economy, the US has a surprisingly weak record when it comes to corporate equality for LGBT people. Federal employment law does not protect people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity and in 28 states employers can still sack staff for being LGBT.

“You can be married on a Sunday, put a picture on your desk of your new spouse and be fired on Monday,” says Matt McTighe, executive director of Freedom For All Americans, a bipartisan campaign to secure full non-discrimination protections for US LGBT people.

The corporate sector has been working towards such a goal. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, has observed companies adopting such measures as establishing affinity groups and protection policies and practices on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Leadership training is a priority, including that for non-LGBT executives. “Not everybody is out in the workplace,” says Lindsay-Rae McIntyre, IBM diversity chief. “Having a management team that is educated about inclusivity in how they develop their people will allow LGBT employees to feel comfortable.”

Companies are recognising the importance of such training and the negative effects of having employees who feel they need to hide who they are. “They lack motivation,” says Drew Keller, programme director at Open for Business, an informal coalition of companies globally promoting LGBT inclusion. “Innovation and collaboration go down and companies have trouble retaining talent.”

In addition to bolstering their own policies, many companies in the US are more willing these days to speak out against prejudicial legislation. In March, North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, signed into law House Bill 2, known as HB2, which included banning trans people from using bathrooms that did not match the gender of their birth. Companies were among those soon voicing their disapproval.

In July, some 68 businesses — including Apple, Bloomberg, Cisco, Dupont, eBay, Gap, IBM, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Nike — joined HRC’s amicus brief supporting the Department of Justice’s effort to block HB2’s most discriminatory elements. Because of corporate boycotts, a fall in tourism and other effects, HB2 has cost North Carolina an estimated $450m in six months, according to advocacy body Georgia Equality.

Beyond the desire to promote equality, companies have business reasons for embarking on this kind of action. “We’ve taken a pretty strong stand in a number of states because it’s important for them to understand that as an employer we want to hire the best and brightest,” says Ms McIntyre of IBM. “If laws are unwelcoming, individuals won’t want to live, work or be trained in those states.”

As well as making their views known as individual organisations, companies are joining forces. In many states, corporate coalitions have emerged — such as Georgia Prospers, Indiana Competes and Freedom Massachusetts — to support diversity and inclusion and to promote the message that discrimination is bad for business.

Such groups have powerful voices, argues Mr McTighe, particularly since many of them have several hundred members: “There’s not going to be a single legislator who can ignore that.”

While Mr McTighe predicts a battle ahead to secure full employment equality and pass federal non-discrimination legislation, he believes the participation of the corporate sector is a reason for optimism. “We’re starting to see a turning point,” he says. “Companies really are speaking up in droves.”

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