Workplace climate is evolving for gay employees

Deb Connors oversees quality control at a manufacturing company in Southern New Hampshire. She has worked in the Granite State for nearly 20 years and has more than a decade of experience in the biotechnical industry. Connor also is a lesbian and has observed firsthand the evolution of attitudes toward gay and lesbian employees taking place in the workplaces of New Hampshire.

“There was a time when you kept your mouth shut at work — you were never sure how people would react,” said Connors, 42. “Today people in general are more comfortable with the issue, and at work it’s become more about how hard you work and how well you do your job. That’s the way it should be.”

The Granite State has protected its workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1998, when it added a statute to existing equal employment opportunity laws. Today, 20 states have laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Twelve more, including Maine and Vermont, also ban discrimination based on gender identity.

The number of charges of workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation brought before the New Hampshire Human Rights Commission has fluctuated but remained low since 1998. “The number of charges goes up and down each year. There really hasn’t been any pattern,” said Katharine Daly, executive director of the New Hampshire Human Rights Commission. “The trend we do see is that the charges brought are more likely to be for harassment in the workplace at the hands of co-workers rather than discrimination in hiring practices or poor treatment by employers.”

In 2002, 18 cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation were brought before the Human Rights Commission, accounting for only 5 percent of the complaints that year. After seeing the numbers fall in ’03, ’04,’05 and ’06 to 16, four, seven and five, respectively – between 2 and 4 percent of overall complaints — the number grew slightly in fiscal 2007 with 14, or 4 percent, of the 318 total complaints alleging discrimination because of sexual orientation.

The laws’ impact

According to Daly, the vast majority of charges based on sexual orientation brought before the Human Rights Commission are settled prior to legal action.

In 2007, for example, there were no cause findings for any of the charges.

Current laws dictate equal treatment for gay and lesbian workers when it comes to hiring practices, compensation, promotions and harassment, among others, but for Connor, building an accepting and cohesive work environment involves more.

“It’s difficult to legislate people’s attitude,” said Connor, who finds her current work environment pleasant and welcoming. “It’s great knowing legally you have the same chance as anyone else to get that promotion, but bad attitudes can make going to work tough and the only thing that takes care of this is time and maybe education – once people take the time to get to know you and get beyond the stereotypes the issues go away.”

Connor believes current laws have helped facilitate this by making it safe for gay and lesbian workers to be more open without fear of losing their jobs, therefore allowing them to actually educate by example, breaking down barriers built on false stereotypes.

Corporate survey

Are New Hampshire employers doing anything to nurture tolerance in the workplace?

While most now include written nondiscrimination policies covering sexual orientation in their employee handbooks, the inclusion of other GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) -friendly policies varies greatly among New Hampshire businesses.

In September the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C. – based civil rights organization dedicated to securing equal rights for the country’s GLBT community, released its 2008 Corporate Equality Index, which rated 519 U.S. businesses on a scale of 0 to 100 according to their treatment of GLBT workers and their efforts to promote a positive workplace climate.

Fortune 1000 companies and companies included on the Forbes list of 200 largest private companies were surveyed. Other companies could request to be part of the survey.

The 2008 CEI looked at the existence of written nondiscrimination policies covering sexual orientation and gender identity, inclusion of same-sex partners and transgender employees in medical benefits, and the existence of diversity training covering sexual orientation and gender identity and whether or not the company targeted the GLBT community in their advertising, sponsorships and philanthropic endeavors.

According to Eric Bloem, deputy director of the HRC’s Workplace Project, four New Hampshire companies received the 2008 survey — including C&S Wholesale Grocers Inc., The Timberland Company, PC Connection and the then-Fisher Scientific. Of these, C&S was the only one to participate, scoring 40 points for its written nondiscrimination policies covering sexual orientation and for the inclusion of employees’ same-sex domestic partners in its health and dental coverage and its bereavement leave and employee assistance programs.

Bloem said he believes more companies will take part in the survey as more and more workers and consumers begin to take a companies GLBT policies into consideration.

“Things are beginning to change,” said Bloem, pointing out that 195 businesses from throughout the country earned perfect ratings on the 2008 survey, marking a 41 percent increase over 2007. And while only one company headquartered in New Hampshire was included on the 2008 survey, many national companies earning perfect scores employ workers in the Granite State, including Anheuser-Busch, J.C. Penney Inc., Walgreens and Starbucks.

“The climate within corporate America has shifted dramatically, and companies are placing a focus on policy with inclusive nondiscrimination, equal benefits and diversity training,” said Bloem. “These things have helped begin to frame a climate in the workplace that is one of tolerance and inclusion. It’s adding momentum.”