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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Pitfalls of the HRC "Corporate Equality Index"

Last month, I blogged about the 2009 Corporate Equality Index (CEI) of the Human Rights Campaign, which rates companies on their diversity leadership with regard to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. As I have noted in the past, most notably in the New York Times, and in my doctoral dissertation, I believe that the CEI played a major role, along with the efforts of many transgender advocates, in the fact that, today, there are over 150 Fortune 500 companies (and several hundred US companies overall) with transgender workplace policies. However, as I have also noted, the climate for transgender employees in US workplaces, even those with transgender policies, is far from rosy. I received letters from a number of transgender employees in companies whose experiences were still difficult despite the fact that their companies received high ratings on the CEI. Here is one such story.

    I worked for a major technology corporation for over 10 years, transitioning after I had been there over 9 years. I learned that I was being laid off 12 days before my sex reassignment surgery (SRS), last October 2007, about 9 months into “full time.” I don’t know a great deal about what happened but I did have time to do some research before I left for my surgery. When I returned, I studied the matter a little more and I decided that it was not going to help my recovery to have this out with them. I decided to let the matter drop. I was recovering not only from SRS but from cancer treatment earlier in the year, and I didn’t have a lot of energy.

    The company consistently receives a perfect 100 on the HRC Corporate Equality Index (CEI) and they have made a point of it on their website in the past, for recruiting purposes, although it may be harder to find now than at the time this happened. Here is what I learned. These comments correspond to the bullet points about this index on Lynn Conway’s web site, reproduced just below. Please understand that I don’t really mean to single out this one company, but it is the only one about which I can write from personal experience.

    At that time, the HRC's Corporate Equality Index rated a company on a scale of 0 percent to 100 percent on whether it:

  • Has a written non-discrimination policy covering sexual orientation.
  • Has a written non-discrimination policy covering gender identity and/or expression.
  • Offers health insurance coverage to employees' same-sex domestic partners.
  • Officially recognizes and supports an GLBT employee group, or has a policy that gives employee groups equal standing regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Offers diversity training that includes sexual orientation and/or gender expression in the workplace.
  • Engages in respectful, appropriate marketing to the GLBT community and/or provides support through its corporate foundation or otherwise to GLBT or AIDS-related organization or events.
  • Avoids any corporate actions that would undermine the goal of equal rights for GLBT people.

    A non-discrimination policy is just that. A policy. What it translates to in practice is that you can’t say anything that is prohibited by the policy. So if your peers and managers don’t like the fact that you are transitioning, they can’t say anything about it and they have to find other ways to express themselves, such as coming up with creative reasons for laying you off. There will be non-verbal clues, so what happens shouldn’t be a total surprise, but sitting down and talking about it is not much of an option. (I am not claiming that this is what happened, and I am not accusing anyone. I really have no way to tell.)

    The required GLBT employee support group is made up of people, mostly gay and lesbian, that want to keep their jobs. If the company does something to you that makes them worry, they may not want to talk about it. And that is the only support that the company needs to provide to receive the 100% rating.

    A company may “market” to GLBTs even though there are many pockets within that company where employees and/or managers are (covertly, thanks to the non-discrimination policy) hostile to GLBTs. The company doesn’t need to be concerned with such things to score 100%. I learned from my company afterward that they have a “privacy policy” that forbids collecting GLBT demographic information, presumably because it might put them at risk for liability for accidentally outing someone. To quote their legal counsel, “…our policy regarding employees' right to privacy prevents us from making direct inquiries about transgender or gender orientation status…” So they are officially blind to things that happen to their GLBT employees—they don’t even know who they are.

    “Corporate actions” are not the problem. If you are GLBT and happen to work with people that are fine with that then you are OK. If you transfer to a different group, you may no longer be. If you find yourself suddenly working for a different manager, you might no longer be. It’s unpredictable. Unless the company has an active, effective internal affirmative action program that protects you, you are best off staying in the closet. Unless you happen to be a TS that can’t.

    Even when there is an active affirmative action program, such as the one my company had for women, it may not work well. And pre-op TS women don’t technically count as women. But I think that a program of this type for GLBT employees would be much better than nothing at all.

    So that is what the HRC CEI 100% score meant to me. I think it is too much about companies trying to get a perfect score every year, and not enough about reflecting GLBT realities for employees of these companies. I would like to see the criteria expanded enough so that no company obtains a perfect score. With that particular game out of the way, perhaps we could begin to have a clearer picture of where we stand and what remains to be done.

I note that the CEI criteria have changed somewhat in the past year, as I discussed in my previous post on the subject. But the moral of this story is that putting a transgender policy in place at your company is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for ensuring that transgender employees are included and engaged. Management must also ensure that it understands the issues faced by transgender employees. Otherwise, these stumbling blocks, often invisible to others, can make the workplace intolerable for transgender employees.

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