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2003 Shareholder Season Brings Success for Sexual Orientation Nondiscrimination Proposals
Among the dozens of environmental and social issues that have been tackled by shareholder activists over the last three decades, the Equality Project’s ten-year-old campaign to promote sexual orientation nondiscrimination policies is proving to be one of the most successful in reaching its goals.
To date, the Equality Project can take credit for policy changes at a minimum of 12 companies, out of 27 companies with whom its members have had dialogue or filed resolutions; pressure from the group is thought to have effected change at several additional companies. The average level of shareholder support for the resolutions is relatively high (15.8%).
The New York City pension funds’ Cracker Barrel resolution made history as it garnered 58% of the vote and became the first social issue shareholder proposal to win a majority vote since the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s.
The New York City pension funds are co-filers of 13 of this year’s proposals.
For the 2003 shareholder season, Equality Project coalition members filed 15 proposals at Fortune 100 companies. To date, three have been withdrawn when the company agreed to implement the proposal (Dynegy, Caterpillar, and TXU), and several proponents have withdrawn resolutions after the company demonstrated that it had such a policy in place (Mirant, MBNA, Lockheed Martin and Ingram Micro). Trillium Asset Management is a co-filer of proposals at JC Penney, Emerson Electric, and TXU.
The Equality Project, the coordinating coalition behind these resolutions, was formed in the early 1990s to track corporate policies concerning gay and lesbian workplace issue. The group developed the Equality Principles in 1994 (see box), which were later amended to include issues facing transgendered employees. Today, investors working with the Equality Project include the leading social investment firms, the New York City and State pension funds, foundations and a college. I have served as coordinator for shareholder initiatives for several years.
Discrimination Still Legal in 37 States
In all but 13 states and fewer than 150 cities nationwide, it is still legal to for private employers to harass, dismiss, fail to promote, or refuse to hire a worker based on his or her sexual orientation. The absence of legislation is not due to a lack of support among the American public. National polls consistently show that more than 75% surveyed support equal employment opportunities for lesbians and gay men (in fact, most believe erroneously that federal law already prohibits sexual orientation-based discrimination.) Rather, the lack of protection reflects the radical right’s stranglehold on the congressional votes needed to pass federal legislation.
U.S. corporations are far ahead of the law. Over 60% of the Fortune 500 includes the phrase ‘sexual orientation’ in their nondiscrimination policies, as do 91% of the Fortune 100. Fortune 500 companies extending domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples grew exponentially from just eight in 1993 to 145 in 2001. While this trend is most welcome, federal law is still needed to protect the majority of LGBT Americans who do not work for Fortune 500 firms. In a 2002 poll by Harris Interactive and Witeck-Combs Communications, 41% of gay and lesbian workers in the U.S. reported facing some form of hostility or harassment on the job; almost 10% also stated that they had been fired or dismissed unfairly from a previous job, or pressured to quit a job because of their sexual orientation.
The Seven of Us Would Like A Cup of Coffee, Please
In 1991, Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, a restaurant chain based in Tennessee, exercised its freedom to discriminate fully and openly, firing at least eleven employees because they were known or suspected to be gay — indicating this directly on several of the employees’ pink slips. Cracker Barrel quickly became the poster boy for anti-gay workplace discrimination, the pink slips a smoking gun that dramatically illustrated the vulnerability of LGBT workers nationwide.
Outraged activists organized protests at Cracker Barrel restaurants, with some clever groups tying up tables for hours sipping a single cup of coffee (but always tipping heavily). Numerous articles appeared in the national press. The New York City pension funds initiated a series of shareholder proposals that stayed on the ballot for the better part of the 1990s.
As noted above, in November 2002, New York City’s Cracker Barrel resolution made history as it garnered 58% of the vote and became the first social issue shareholder proposal to win a majority vote since the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s. Cracker Barrel’s board of directors voted to implement the proposal the day after the shareholder meeting.
This Year’s Focus: The Fortune 100
Last May, an Equality Project proposal at ExxonMobil received 24% of votes cast, one of the highest votes of the 2002 shareholder season. ExxonMobil ranks second on the Fortune 500 list, just below Wal Mart, which employs one million workers.
ExxonMobil and Wal Mart are two of only nine companies in the Fortune 100 that do not currently offer employees written protection against sexual orientation-based discrimination. In 1999, following the merger of Exxon and Mobil, the new company revoked Mobil’s domestic partner benefits and inclusive nondiscrimination policy. Anger at ExxonMobil remains high, and its policy rescindments likely account for the exceptionally high shareholder vote in favor of the Equality Project’s resolution.
An interesting turn of events at ConocoPhillips suggests that ExxonMobil’s gaffe has resonated with other corporations. Like ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips revoked Conoco’s nondiscrimination policy when the two companies merged in 2002. But unlike ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips reinstated the policy quickly after the revocation became public.
Members of the Equality Project have met with Wal Mart but the company has refused to change its policies to date.
Transgender Workplace Discrimination
Sexual orientation and sex discrimination protections have proven legally inadequate to protect transgendered workers*, a subset of the LGBT community. Transgendered persons face enormous prejudice and hostility in the workplace. The Equality Project is supporting transgendered workplace advocactes in making their case to corporate leaders.
While unemployment and workplace harassment are common experiences for transgendered persons, there are hopeful signs that change is possible. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has tracked 60 cities and the State of Minnesota have implemented nondiscrimination laws covering gender identity, expression or characteristics, and 111 companies (including Apple, Intel, IBM and American Airlines) that have added gender identity to their nondiscrimination policies. A recent survey by the HRC found that 61% of Americans believe the country needs laws to protect transgender people from discrimination (57 % incorrectly believe that it is not legal to fire a person just because they are transgender).
The incongruity between discriminatory behaviors and Americans’ seemingly reflexive support for equal opportunity seems to suggest that overall, it is a relative minority that makes the workplace uncomfortable for LGBT employees — a minority supported by inconsistent policies and laws. All things considered, that is a hopeful premise on which to build.
The Equality Principles
1. The company will prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender expression or gender identity as part of its written employment policy statement.
2. The company will disseminate its written employment policy statement company-wide.
3. The company will not tolerate discrimination on the basis of any employee’s actual or perceived health condition, status or disability.
4. The company will offer equal health insurance and other benefits to employees to cover their domestic partners regardless of the employee’s marital status, sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity.
5. The company will include discussions of sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity as part of its official employee diversity and sensitivity training communications.
6. The company will give employee groups equal standing, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
7. The company advertising policy will avoid the use of negative stereotypes based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
8. The company will not discriminate against advertising, marketing or promoting events on the basis of sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity.
9. The company will not discriminate in the sale of its goods or services based on sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity.
10. “The company will not bar charitable contributions to groups and organizations on the basis of sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity.
For more information:
“Gender & The Workplace (Identity, Expression, Variance…)” at
* “Transgender” is an umbrella term that describes persons who express gender characteristics that do not correspond with those traditionally ascribed to the person’s sex, as well as transsexual people and cross-dressers.