by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Each year, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) releases a Corporate Equality Index (CEI), which the organization claims is the 'national benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices pertinent to LGBT employees.'
In a nutshell, HRC compiles, based on survey results, a list of the best places for LGBT people to work and points out some not so great places for us to work. It comes out every year and more often than not, there isn't a big revelation that we didn't all already know.
In the 2014 CEI report, 304 major businesses - spanning nearly every industry and geography - earned a top score of 100 percent and the distinction of 'Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality.'
On April 1, HRC released the 2014 CEI report. On April 12, Emily Shire, a political writer for The Daily Beast penned a critique entitled 'The Arbitrary Way Companies Are Labeled 'Anti-Gay.' In it, Shire argues that the Human Rights Campaign's standards for corporate America's Gay-friendliness have modernized - but its evaluation methods haven't.
Shire writes, '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,' she continued. '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.'
According to the HRC CEI, 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.
Shire asks, '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.)'
Shire says that it comes down to the fact that 'the HRC's system for evaluating work environments makes little sense.'
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,' reports Shire. '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.'
Shire explains, '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, she said.
Other findings by Shire include, '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.'
Additionally, Shire claims, '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.'
And to be fair, and Shire was being just that - fair. '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,' she said, showing that this was no hit piece. '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.'
In 2002, HRC 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.
However, due to these tougher scores, some companies took hits in their CEI scores even though their LGBT policies may not have actually worsened over the years.
Shire cites the following 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.'
Shire says that the 2014 CEI report rightfully reflects the ambitiousness of today's LGBT movement, writing that '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,' she concludes. '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 finally, Shire ends with, '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.'
Defending the organization, John K. Barry, a member of the HRC's Business Advisory Council published a rebuttal to The Daily Beast report, saying that, as someone who has been involved with the CEI since it began in 2002, he does not think that favoritism is at play.
'There are two main points that are lost in Ms. Shire's piece: the CEI is not arbitrary by thoughtful design, and these CEI ratings are the end result of meaningful partnerships with the ranked companies,' said Barry.
'It is important to note that the CEI does not exist as a mere evaluation tool,' he continued. 'Rather, it came into existence in 2002 to fill a void left by a lack of important protections for LGBT employees. In 2002, it was legal to fire, refuse to hire, or otherwise discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation in 38 states and 44 based on gender identity. Today, it is perfectly legal to do this in 29 and 33 states, respectively.'
Stating that HRC and corporate America are ahead of the game, Barry writes, 'While LGBT employees still lack these basic workplace protections, and the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act continues to work its way through Congress, Corporate America has forged ahead by working with HRC through the CEI to significantly improve the workplace for LGBT employees.'
Thanks to this design of transparent, achievable standards, the CEI has moved the needle for the LGBT community when it comes to policies that affect them as employees, he said.
'This fact is irrefutable, and one particularly illustrative example is that back in 2002, only 5% of those companies scored in the CEI included gender identity in their non-discrimination policies,' Barry continued. 'Over the years through education, increased engagement with HRC and the CEI, and the competitive nature of Corporate America, that number has grown to 86%.'
According to Barry, 'Aside from producing these incredibly positive changes for thousands of employees working at major corporations, one can easily determine how a final score is calculated for each company. Contrary to what Ms. Shire writes, the report does not evaluate work environments.'
Barry says the CEI clearly indicate whether a company does or does not:
o have an inclusive non-discrimination policy (for 30 points),
o offer inclusive benefits for Transgender employees and employees' same-sex domestic partners (35 points),
o engage in efforts to educate their workforce on issues of LGBT diversity (20 points), and
o promote LGBT equality in a broader, public sense (15 points).
Barry maintains that the CEI is neither prescriptive nor arbitrary. The criteria are purposeful in design to eliminate ambiguity and disallow arbitrary points.
'While the criteria are flexible enough to award credit for how the more than 700 participating companies across industries and geographies 'do' diversity, it remains resolute in its core requirements of non-discrimination policies, equitable benefits, and inclusive practices,' he said.
'Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the CEI does not randomly recognize companies that meet all the requirements earning them a 100 in the report. Companies are scored where they stand each year,' said Barry. 'The movement of companies from lower scores up to 100 show how a single company is making progress for their LGBT employees.
'The CEI survey (upon which the report [Ms. Shire] references is based), is a carefully crafted audit and tool to help companies identify their blind spots and close their gaps when it comes to their employees who happen to be part of the LGBT community. The survey is completed by official company representatives, often hand-in-hand with HRC staff, LGBT employees and employee resource groups, working hard to improve their workplaces for LGBT employees.
'CEI scores don't just happen; they are the result of an investment by those employers and employees who recognize that equality is good for business,' Barry said.
'As unfortunate and misrepresentative as Ms. Shire's piece was, I am pleased to clarify that over the past 12 years the CEI has been the impetus of meaningful changes for LGBT workers,' he concludes. 'I am proud of how far the CEI and Corporate America have come to recognize and embrace equality since 2002, and look forward to its future impact. I know that Corporate America would not be the effective ally of equality that it is today without the progress achieved by the CEI.'
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