Making Change: Gay-Friendly Policies in the Workplace

Featured Audio

When Martha Grevatt began working for Chrysler nearly two decades ago, she says she was frequently harassed for being female, and for being gay.

Martha Grevatt: They'd put pornography on my toolbox. Or they'd put various homophobic hate messages around the work area.

She fought back, encouraging the auto workers union to push for gay-friendly policies in its 1996 contract negotiations, and helping organize a protest when the company balked at the proposed changes.

Martha Grevatt: The same week of that protest, Chrysler sent a letter to every employee that it would not tolerate harassment or discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And this was just a couple of months after it was arguing that such a policy was not necessary.

Chrysler - along with Ford and GM - has since introduced a variety of gay-friendly policies, including domestic partner benefits. And the automakers are not alone. According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the number of major corporations offering a broad range of gay-friendly policies has increased seven-fold since the HRC began rating companies back in 2002. But not everybody celebrates this trend.

Phil Burress: I don't understand why a company would put their stockholders at risk or their bottom-line at risk, by wading in to these controversial issues.

Phil Burress is president of Citizens for Community Values, which led the effort last year to pass Issue 1, Ohio's anti-same-sex marriage law.

Phil Burress: Certainly, private enterprise can do anything it chooses. But if they are formed to make money selling a product, then that's what they should do.

So, why would a company adopt a policy that could alienate some of its customers or clients? Bob Puccio is vice president of associate services at Nationwide Insurance. He says when his company began offering health benefits to domestic partners in 1999, it was a way to recognize - and keep up with - a significant social shift.

Bob Puccio: We were right on the cusp, we believed, of a changing workforce, and changing demographics in the workforce, in terms of the definition of family.

Bob Witeck, CEO of a Washington DC-based marketing and PR firm that specializes in gay issues, says business has been ahead of society at large in recognizing that gay people have a substantive role to play in the economy - as consumers, employees, and even shareholders.

Bob Witeck: Companies are fair-minded more and more, for two primary reasons. One, they see it benefits them; it's profitable. And at the same time, reputation advances their marketability to other consumers.

Eric Lutzo: The LGBT community is a 650 - some people say 580 - billion dollar market.

Eric Lutzo is a Cleveland-based executive coach, who says businesses are coming to realize that addressing the concerns of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people is in their own best interest.

Eric Lutzo: We have a 60% brand loyalty rate, which means if they buy something they like, they're likely to go buy it again. They have higher disposable income. They're extremely loyal in the organization that supports them.

And then there's the ongoing quest for talent. Some researchers - most notably Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class - say the country's most talented choose a workplace in part based on its level of acceptance for diversity. Brooke Willis is the newly arrived managing editor at Northern Ohio Live.

Bob Witeck: It's a big issue, and it's no issue at all. Certainly, it's in the back of my mind that I would only be looking for a job where I could be completely myself - out - and a little bit political.

Executive Coach Eric Lutzo says gay workers must feel accepted on the job in order to reach their full potential.

Eric Lutzo: Daniel Goldman in Emotional Intelligence talks about, if you can't be your authentic self, your productivity goes down.

But there are those who see companies' efforts to provide a welcoming atmosphere to gay workers as promoting immorality, not diversity. And they wonder if their own objections to homosexuality - often based in religious belief - will put them in an untenable position on the job. Nationwide VP Bob Puccio says his company's adoption of gay-friendly policies has never been intended to influence anybody's belief system.

Bob Puccio: We weren't looking to change anybody's values, their personal values, or what they believed in. But, we have a specific set of values as a corporation that we want to emphasize, and this fit nicely into those values.

But even as more and more businesses embrace similar values, society as a whole may be moving in a different direction. Ohio was just one of 11 states to pass an anti-gay marriage law last year, and such efforts continue. And that begs the question: which trend is stronger? Corporate efforts to equalize straight and gay relationships, or societal efforts to prevent such equality.

Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

Support Provided By