Bill Bans Bias Against Gays, Transsexuals

At a time when 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have gay-inclusive policies, a bipartisan group of legislators has introduced a bill expanding federal law to protect gays, lesbians and bisexual and transsexual persons.

May 9, 2007

Sometimes the private sector has to be dragged kicking and screaming into compliance with federal laws. But sometimes corporations are a step ahead of Washington.

That may be the case when it comes to hiring and promoting homosexual employees. At a time when 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have gay-inclusive policies, Reps. Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, have introduced a bill that would ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The lawmakers have been joined by Republican colleagues Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, and Christopher Shays, R-Connecticut, to create a bipartisan push to expand federal law to protect gays, lesbians and bisexual and transsexual persons.

Frank says he has a commitment from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to have a floor vote later this year on the legislation, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

In the absence of a federal law, advances toward welcoming workplaces have been accomplished through a combination of corporate self-interest and moral persuasion.

“The leading-edge companies in America understand they need the best people,” says Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. “They’re not doing this for merit badges.”

But he says there’s a wider swath of employers who are “less sophisticated.”

“There are still vast sectors of the American economy where [discrimination based on sexual orientation] is a problem,” Frank says.

The insurance company Nationwide supports the Frank bill because it “would simply and fairly extend the fundamental right to be judged on one’s own merits without placing excessive burdens on employers,” Stephen Keyes, vice president of compensation, benefits and human resource policy, said at a Capitol Hill press conference.

Nationwide’s diversity increases employee productivity, according to Keyes.

“Our culture puts us at an advantage—our associates have an environment that allows them to do their best work, without worry or threat of discrimination,” he says.

The insurer inculcates openness by making it part of engagement evaluations for managers. If employees believe a superior is demonstrating a bias, they can take their complaint to other authorities within the company.

Hewlett-Packard also backs the Frank bill and has implemented its own non­discrimination policy.

“We feel it’s an appropriate-cost solution which enables us to be more competitive in the workplace and have a more diverse employee basis,” says Kristy Skupa Sternhell, HP director of congressional affairs.

Even employment lawyers offer no resistance. Tyler Brown, managing partner of the Jackson Lewis office in Washington, says that companies are already practicing what the Frank bill preaches.

“We see very few of these cases,” he says. “It’s one of the least often seen charges of discrimination. Corporate America is already on board with this.”

Employer experience in California seems to bear out that assessment. Three years ago, the state strengthened a prohibition on sexual-orientation discrimination by moving it out of the labor code and into the Fair Employment and Housing Act to give it more teeth.

Stuart Miller, an employment partner in the San Francisco office of Davis Wright Tremaine, says his clients aren’t having a problem with the law.

“I haven’t heard any reasonable basis for opposing a nationwide ban with penalties,” he says.

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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