Forging a Rainbow Trail Through LGBT Market Research

By Bob Witeck

In April, when Indiana Governor Mike Pence and his legislature enacted a socalled religious freedom law – giving businesses the right to discriminate against LGBT people – the resulting firestorm roiled the nation, not just Indiana.

Like dominos, one by one, major corporations roared back in opposition – from Salesforce, Yelp and Angie’s List to Marriott, Eli Lilly and Dow, among many others. The NCAA and the Indy Chamber of Commerce rightly feared that commerce and tourism would feel the deepest sting from the hurtful law. Within days, Pence and his allies turned back and amended the discriminatory statute. They saw the writing on the wall that ill-advised policies that harm any group, including LGBT people, are buzz kill to a state’s economy and reputation.

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Many observers were stunned by this political firestorm, and declared that overnight American business had become a champion for LGBT equality and acceptance. To be honest, like most “overnight” successes, this story actually began to unfold over two decades ago.

In the 1990s, when I first began consulting with corporations such as American Airlines and IBM for instance, I realized how significant it was to benchmark workplace progress. Executives and decision-makers relied often on business metrics and their competitive landscape. While there were a handful of trailblazers, it was no simple task to identify corporations that had embraced gay-friendly and inclusive policies or practices.

At the time, an ally and journalist in New York, Grant Lukenbill, made an early stab researching and reporting on fair-minded business practices. He designed a simple but logical tool called the Gay & Lesbian Values Index, which had a straightforward 10-point system to score companies on their LGBT acceptance.

Many of us saw the foresight in Lukenbill’s fundamentals. It was basic roadmap for workers, investors and consumers to recognize and reward progressive businesses. Lukenbill ultimately shared his approach with the staff of the Human Rights Campaign Fund (its earlier name). Working with HRCF colleagues, my business partner, Wes Combs and I discussed building on this platform with our own investigation.

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In 1999 we collaborated with HRCF to conduct the first authoritative, yet unofficial, survey of Washington, D.C. area employers. We were charged with surveying major companies in the Nation’s Capital, as well as Maryland and Virginia, to determine which included sexual orientation under their nondiscrimination rules in all hiring and promotion practices, and which, if any, offered same-sex domestic partner health benefits. We also asked whether the company officially recognized an LGBT employee resource group.

Keep in mind, at that time, very few employers wished to share this information publicly. Most were cautious if not wary and discreet; many considered our inquiry highly sensitive and possibly controversial. For the next few weeks, we diligently picked up the phone to contact over 100 leading companies, and asked to speak with HR professionals, public information managers as well as the occasional corporate attorney. Few – if any – had ever heard this question arise, and most were reluctant to share their policies with us knowing that the information would be made public.

During this research, I particularly recall making an inquiry to a leading corporate think tank, the Employee Benefit Research Institute. I simply asked their staff how often companies had inquired about offering same-sex partner benefits – and they told me they had never had a single query yet. It was not totally surprising to hear, considering that singular pioneers like IBM earned the media’s attention in 1996 when they began to offering equal health benefits to same-sex partners. Doing the right thing then demanded a story on the front page of The New York Times.

As I recall, we had modest results across the board, and uncovered a forward-thinking group of employers that declared all forms of discrimination were forbidden, including against LGBT employees. To be very honest, however, we discovered then that most employers would not say so out loud.

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As a native Virginian, I was especially interested to learn how Northern Virginia tech firms recruited their diverse workforce – and whether, like IBM’s example, they sensitively welcomed LGBT talent. I was stunned to learn that not a single Virginia company offered health coverage for same-sex domestic partners because the Commonwealth of Virginia explicitly outlawed it.

In 1999, like many states, Virginia still had an outdated and unfair sodomy law on its books. Tragically enough, homosexuality itself was still criminalized south of the Potomac River, and Virginia’s insurance regulators therefore would not sanction any workplace benefit for same-sex partners given Virginia’s criminal statute. Worse, Virginia was the only jurisdiction among all 50 states that carried this ban.

Fortunately, the state legislature overturned the ban in 2005 by passing the Small Business Insurance Parity Act, allowing all Virginia businesses to offer domestic partner health care insurance. Fast forward to 2002 and the initial launch of the Corporate Equality Index by the Human Rights Campaign.

That first year, a mere 13 companies earned perfect 100% scores, while in 2015, hundreds more corporations have followed their example.

What was a trickle is now a rising tide of workplace equality, fairness and inclusion that has fostered a transformed climate of acceptance and opportunity. Major companies throughout Virginia and across the nation recognize that discrimination – in any form – is a curse to economic growth and vitality. "Major companies throughout Virginia and across the nation recognize that discrimination – in any form – is a curse to economic growth and vitality