GLBT Gains: A Look at Sexual Orientation Issues in the Corporate Workplace

The cover story on diversity at work.

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Although GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) issues lag behind ethnic and gender diversity in the workplace, visibility and progress are growing. To see this, it takes just a glance at the Human Rights Campaign's (HRC)Corporate Equality Index, which tracks workplace inclusiveness of GLBT employees using metrics such as the existence inclusive discrimination policies, affinity groups and equal benefits. In 2009, HRC rated 260 businesses with top score--up 65 from last year, and up from 13 in 2002.

Despite the growth in equality, GLBT rights aren't talked about as much as ethnic and gender minority issues, and often companies treat the issue differently.

"When you think about the category it's not very often that corporations express a lot of interest in it," says Angel Higareda, an e-discovery specialist at Exelon who sits on his company's GLBT affinity group and is openly gay. He points to the HRC numbers as low overall (HRC rated 584 companies). "I think we have a long way to go," he says.

In the law firm surveys that law departments send out, which have become an important component of many corporate diversity programs, few ask specifically about GLBT lawyers. This often has to do with state privacy laws. But there are ways to get around that. Microsoft, for example, includes the question but tells survey-fillers that it can go unanswered if state law prohibits it. Exelon has an "other" category for minorities, which includes GLBT people. (Although Higareda, who works on the survey committee, says he'd like to propose asking more specifically to measure that progress.) In more informal relations, simply expressing interest can be helpful.

"For a lot of reasons, people kind of shy away from GLBT issues," says Jill Jacobson, a managing partner at Bowman and Brooke in Richmond, Va. "Sometimes it's just a matter of asking the questions: Do you have any GLBT lawyers at your firm? Are they working on my accounts?"

Jacobson also believes that GLBT lawyers can advance their own cause by being visible. "I think GLBT folks sometimes see coming out as limiting rather than broadening their opportunities," she says, recounting her previous law firm,where she was encouraged to be discreet about her orientation. At her current firm, she is encouraged to be herself--her profile on the firm's Web site, for example, states she is openly gay, noting her creative solutions "have delighted many."

And Jacobson sees a lot of benefits to coming out--publishing, speaking and business development opportunities, not to mention the personal: "It takes too much energy to hide that significant a part of your life," she says. "Whatever fears people have, I think a lot of those fears don't really come to fruition. We're not going to overcome homophobia by staying in the closet, we need to ID ourselves and come out, network with each other and in-house lawyers, and letting folks know we do bring a new and different dimension."

An employee affinity group for employees interested in GLBT issues is vital to encouraging openness and support, and executive sponsorship shows true commitment. Higareda was pleased when he joined Exelon and learned CEO John Rowe sponsors Pride, the company's GLBT affinity group. Rowe has been very active with the group, driven by the experience of a gay friend who went through a lot of anguish staying in the closet at work.

"Through the years, John remembered that and wanted to make a difference or change--at least in this company," Higareda says.

Associate Editor

Melissa Maleske

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