Not Enough

04.12.14

The Arbitrary Way Companies Are Labeled 'Anti-Gay'

GM, yes. Washington Post, no? The Human Rights Campaign’s standards for corporate America’s gay-friendliness have modernized—but it’s evaluation methods haven’t.

On April 1, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation honored more than 300 major employers at the 12th Annual LGBT Workplace Awards Reception.  Some of the biggest names in corporate America were celebrated at the gala event, including AT&T, Viacom, Nike, and Boeing. Even companies that have recently faced criticism for ethically questionable business practices were honored, including Bank of America, Pfizer, Monsanto, and General Motors.

All of these companies earned their spots at the dinner at the Time Warner Center in New York City by receiving a perfect score of 100 percent on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index. Absent from the night’s honorees was the Washington Post (which was evaluated by its 2013 record, before it was formally purchased by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in October). In fact, not only was a publication of the so-called liberal media at the heart of the Beltway not invited to the reception, it received a lowly 20 percent in the CEI report. Its score was worse than Dominos, BJs, Autozone, and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

But before you cancel your subscription to the Washington Post, take a look at what earned one of the most prestigious publications in the country a measly 20 percent. The newspaper received 15 points for offering health insurance to the same-sex partners of employees and an additional 5 for offering other, “soft” benefits to partners, though apparently not enough to earn the full 10 points.

What exactly did the former Washington Post Co. do that was so antagonistic to LGBT employees that it couldn’t scrape up a few more points? For that matter, how did Whole Foods, which rather surprisingly does not grant employees’ same-sex partners health insurance, manage to score a far more respectable 75 on the CEI? (Whole Foods says, in contrast to the report, that it does provide health insurance coverage for same-sex and domestic partners).

Employers need to do more to keep up with the times—and that’s a good thing.

In short, it comes down to the fact that the HRC’s system for evaluating work environments makes little sense. HRC didn’t respond to calls for comment for this article; the criteria guidelines are presented in its CEI report.

In addition to the medical-insurance criteria, 15 points are awarded for “positively engag[ing] the External LGBT Community.” A company can only earn five of those points if it has made less than three efforts to do so in the past year. That means guaranteeing same-sex partners health care is given equal value as doing LGBT outreach beyond the office space, such as specifically marketing to LGBT consumers. While such actions are commendable, they arguably do not have the same effect on an LGBT employee’s life as giving his or her partner insurance benefits.

As the Whole Foods example shows, under HRC’s criteria and valuations, one company can easily earn a higher CEI rating than another without offering an essential employee benefit: partner health insurance.

Other criteria are nebulous, arbitrary, and excessive in their valuations when compared to something as central as health-care coverage.

If a company doesn’t have a firm-wide diversity council, that costs it 10 points on the CEI. It will lose another 10 if it doesn’t offer a “firm-wide organizational competency program,” with at least three specific elements. For example, a company that mandates supervisors undergo training in sensitive gender-identity and sexual-orientation issues and clearly states a nondiscrimination policy to new employees, would not earn those 10 points because it only hits up two required elements.

This is not to say the Washington Post lacks certain employee policies that makes it pale in comparison to its corporate peers. According to the CEI report, the company has no rules on the book prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, each of which could have earned the company an additional 15 points.

As confusing and poorly structured as some of the CEI criteria are, the 2014 report does reflect that the bar has thankfully been set much higher to be considered LGBT-friendly.

When HRC started doing the report in 2002, many of the same basic values, such as non-discrimination  policies for sexual orientation and gender identity, were factored into the CEI score. But a company had to do a lot less to fulfill the criteria.

For example, as long as a company advertised in LGBT-focused publications or donated to LGBT charities, it earned the full credit for “advertising and philanthropy.” There were none of the 2014 specifications about having at least three types of specific examples to prove that the criteria had been fulfilled.

An even more significant difference was that HRC in 2002 tended to give companies the benefit of the doubt. As long as a company didn’t actively discriminate against LGBT employees, it earned at least some points. The 2002 CEI report stated that certain companies still received 14 points because the HRC couldn’t “find any evidence that they had overtly resisted equal treatment for their LGBT employees, but neither had they taken any affirmative steps for LGBT employees, consumers, or investors.”

By 2014, the burden was on companies to show that they were actively pursuing policies to protect LGBT members, rather than merely not discriminating against them.

Some companies took hits in their CEI scores even though their LGBT policies may not have actually worsened over the years. For example, Polaroid fell from 86 percent in 2002 to 30 percent in 2014. According to the current CEI report, the company prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, offers some benefits to same-sex partners, and has an employer-supported resource group or diversity council. Yet features like these just don’t buy a company as much LGBT credit in 2014 as it would have in 2002; employers need to do more to keep up with the times—and that’s a good thing.

The 2014 CEI report rightfully reflects the ambitiousness of today’s LGBT movement, whose push for marital, transgender, and other community rights were rarely discussed as feasible goals in 2002. It should take a lot more in 2014 to earn a good CEI score than it did in 2002.

But that doesn’t mean the HRC can avoid scrutinizing its own standards. If HRC doesn’t adequately prioritize and value essential needs, like health insurance for same-sex partners, before its more arbitrary specifications, the CEI scores simply lose their value. And if HRC keeps celebrating companies that have quite literally been responsible for death and damages, like General Motors and Pfizer, the organization itself may start to lose its values.