With the U.S. Supreme Court ready to decide on landmark federal law that could prohibit sex discrimination in the workplace for LGBTQ employees, many gay and trans advocates are watching with concern.
The timeline of protections for LGBTQ individuals in the United States started back in early 1970s and since then, has been a patchwork of protections. Today, 26 states and three U.S. territories — representing about 44% of the LGBTQ population — still do not have employment protections for LGBTQ individuals.
Currently, there are three pending cases before the U.S. Supreme Court that will determine whether or not the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under Title VII protects LGBTQ individuals from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity at the federal level. “The issue before the court is whether the word ‘sex’ in prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex includes gender identity and sexual orientation,” says Wesley Bizzell, president of the National LGBT Bar Association and Senior Assistant General Counsel and Managing Director of Political Law & Ethics Programs at Altria in the Government Affairs function. He also leads the company’s political law and ethics compliance programs.
Bizzell notes that the Court’s decisions in the cases will have a tremendous impact on the LGBTQ community and the protections that the community is afforded at the federal level; although in these cases, the state protections would remain intact.
If the Supreme Court sides with employees, it would allow an individual, depending on the size of the company, who has experienced discrimination to bring a claim to the Equal Employee Opportunity Commission (EEOC) at the federal level.
Employers play a critical role in protections
Employers have led the way over the past decade on LGBTQ equality. Largely because of the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, 93% of all Fortune 500 companies prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 91% prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of employers, which would not ban discrimination against LGBTQ employees, corporations and large law firms will have to play an even more critical role going forward. Indeed, having these policy protections is the first step, Bizzell explains, adding the next step is making sure the tone at the top is on target.
“Leaders who are setting the tone of being an ethical and upright organization that values diversity are able to push their organizations further than they would otherwise,” says Bizzell.
Creating a culture of inclusion for LGBTQ employees
To create a culture that is truly accepting of LGBTQ colleagues, Bizzell recommends a few key components:
Employee resource group (ERG) — This group can provide LGBTQ employees a mechanism to connect and push for change collectively. In addition, ERGs provide both networking and leadership opportunities to allow LGBTQ members to gain visibility with company leaders.
Trust — A key component to activate the membership of the ERG is trust. Members of the community have to be certain that joining the group will not be detrimental to their careers. This needs to be underscored by company leaders’ tone at the top and holding leaders accountable.
Pride celebrations — Celebrating June as Pride month with a visible commitment of the CEO and other senior leaders is another critical step, Bizzell says, adding that Altria hosts a speaker every year during Pride month. The event attracts both LGBTQ community members as well as their allies and allows them to hear from LGBTQ individuals.
Advocate for LGBTQ rights — Corporations and law firms have stepped up significantly in the last few years to use their influence and buying power with state governments and political leaders when anti-LGBTQ legislation has been proposed or enacted. One easy step towards better advocacy is having employers sign a letter voicing concerns about legislation or to support equality externally. Such activity gains even more trust and credibility among employees and demonstrates the employer’s commitment to LGBTQ inclusion.
With the Supreme Court’s decision imminent, Bizzell acknowledges there will be societal ramifications should the Court decide in favor of employers. However, given society’s progress over the last 10 years and recent big wins in equality-related protections, Bizzell says he takes the long view.
“This [decision in favor of employers] would be a huge setback at the federal level,” he says. “But I am confident that our community will again come together and successfully move to right the wrong.”
You can hear more from Wesley Bizzell and others at the upcoming Outlaws webinar, On the Basis of Sex: LGBTQ Employment Rights at a Crossroads, on June 3.