Real workplace protections needed

  • by Selisse Berry
  • Wednesday January 30, 2013
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"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law."


Those words, spoken by President Barack Obama during his 2013 Inaugural Address last week, give me great hope that we will soon see an executive order prohibiting all federal contractors, regardless of size, from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the workplace. The order would extend basic workplace protections to between 11 and 16 million people in the United States, according to a report by the Williams Institute.

Now that marriage equality has made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, it is time to address the real need for workplace protections. In 29 states, anyone can be fired simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. This means that a person married to a same-sex partner in Maryland, a state that has workplace protections, and working in Virginia could be fired just for being gay, with no recourse, unless they are a state employee (thanks to the non-discrimination bill that passed the Virginia state Senate last week). This situation restricts where people can work, and is not conducive for a functioning economy. It is also blatantly unfair for LGBT people. The president clearly stated his support for the LGBT community during his Inaugural Address. An executive order would take his words one step further and build the momentum for 2013 to be the year for significant workplace advances for LGBT people.

One big question is how inclusive such an order would be. At the very least, it should require all federal contractors to include sexual orientation and gender identity in their non-discrimination policies. A more comprehensive executive order might also require contractors to offer domestic partner benefits, implement diversity and inclusion training, and demonstrate non-discrimination in their hiring practices. This would be a huge improvement. Out and Equal Workplace Advocates provides diversity training and works closely with LGBT employee resource groups at a number of government contractors, including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Rockwell Collins, and General Dynamics. These companies are ahead of the curve, and stand out from other contractors that have yet to create concrete policies.

An executive order would be a huge step forward for LGBT rights.

The order would bring monumental changes to the workplace for LGBT people by extending protections into those parts of the private sector where they currently do not exist. An executive order from Obama would provide true incentive for some of the nation's largest corporations to create inclusive workplaces: if they want to do business with the government, they would need to comply with the executive order.

Federal contractors are currently regulated by a 1965 executive order, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It also requires contractors to take affirmative action to ensure that equal opportunity is provided in all aspects of employment.

Signing an inclusive executive order should follow the precedent established in 1965, rightly recognizing that workplace equality requires a lot more than non-discrimination policies: true equality is only in place when employees have inclusive and safe work environments.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of the president authorizing this executive order. Not only would it expand workplace equality immediately, it would also add momentum for a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would protect all LGBT people in employment, whether their employer is a government contractor or not.

An executive order will mirror what has been happening at many progressive Fortune 500 companies for a while now. At Out and Equal Workplace Advocates, we have already seen a huge increase in businesses implementing non-discrimination policies and diversity training. For example, Google was the winner of the 2013 Out and Equal "Outie" Workplace Excellence Award, which honors one company each year for its ongoing commitment to workplace equality, demonstrated by unquestioned leadership, dedication and innovation on behalf of LGBT employees everywhere. Every year, we see a growing number of businesses taking meaningful steps to create inclusive workplaces. Fortune 500 companies are increasingly advancing diversity in the workplace as a business imperative, and recognize inclusion as a driving factor in their success.


What if the executive order is not signed?

An alternative to a new executive order would be to expand the 1965 order to include sexual orientation and gender identity under the protected characteristic of "sex." This would follow a landmark move by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in April 2012, when it issued an opinion in support of transgender rights. According to the EEOC, an employer who discriminates against an employee or applicant on the basis of the person's gender identity is violating the prohibition on sex discrimination contained in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In two other cases, gay and lesbian employees who were harassed at their postal jobs won their cases because the EEOC ruled that the harassment was based on gender stereotyping. Obama could reinforce the basic rights of all employees by simply reinforcing the decisions and interpretations coming out of the EEOC.

The president has already exhibited great courage and commitment in showing that he values our rights. Whether he decides to sign a new executive order or modify former President Johnson's 1965 order, it is essential that Obama continue his message in support of equality through meaningful action. By signing an executive order, or modifying the existing order, the President will be clearly stating that discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people will not be funded by the federal government. Equality is a basic right, and it cannot wait.



Selisse Berry is executive director of Out and Equal Workplace Advocates and editor of the just-released Out and Equal at Work: From Closet to Corner Office.