Gay for pay

by James Cox
Memphis Triangle Journal

You’re there at least 40 hours a week, and that’s a big chunk of time to spend in the closet – especially if you’re out the other 128. In a perfect world, sexuality wouldn’t matter to our coworkers and our bosses, same-sex partners could be added to our employer-provided health insurance policy and our retirement benefits could be passed on to them without question.

But anyone who has ever played the pronoun-switching game at the water cooler, altered the truth about the weekend’s activities or hoped our partners didn’t need to visit the doctor without insurance knows the world isn’t perfect.

For the Midsouth GLBT workforce, it’s the age-old story of good news and bad news. The bad news is the Midsouth isn’t exactly an open-minded metropolis that draws the world’s most progressive employers, and consequently, the diverse and talented workforce those employers seek.

The good news is that Memphis’ central location (the Memphis airport has been the world’s largest cargo airport since 1991) makes it a thriving transportation and distribution hub. Combine that with a skilled workforce, abundant real estate and low operating costs, and Memphis doesn’t look so bad to a company looking to make west Tennessee home.

Memphis is the home to three major Fortune 500 companies — AutoZone, FedEx and International Paper — and numerous others have satellite offices or distribution facilities in the city. While most people would agree the benefit of having three world-class companies employing tens of thousands of people and pumping billions of dollars into the local economy is an asset, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) these three companies have some gaps to close when it comes to GLBT-friendly policies.

Each year HRC publishes the Corporate Equality Index (CEI), an in-depth analysis of more 500 U.S. employers and their policies and practices relating to GLBT employees. The study ranks companies on a 100-point scale according to their non-discrimination policies, extension of benefits to same-sex partners and commitment to diversity training among factors.

For the 2008 survey, International Paper scored the highest among the three Memphis-based companies, pulling a 70 for its written sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy, for offering health insurance coverage to domestic partners and for requiring all employees to attend diversity training on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, it fell short of a perfect 100 for not including gender identity in its nondiscrimination policy and for not supporting GLBT causes with corporate giving or advertising.

The Memphis mega-employer known as FedEx didn’t fare as well, scoring a 55 on the HRC index. The international shipper ranks 68 on the Fortune 500 and has been named by Fortune magazine as one of the best places to work, employing more than 200,000 people worldwide and more than 30,000 locally. However, its exclusion of gender identity from its nondiscrimination policy, exclusion of domestic partners from insurance coverage and requirement that only managers attend diversity training dropped its CEI score. 

The company does, however, sponsor several “affinity” networks, according to company spokesperson Sally Davenport. One of those groups is the FedEx Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) and Friends Network.

“The network is supportive of LGBT employees by offering mentoring, education, information and experience sharing along with providing activities and events that promote the value of all employees,” Davenport said.

At the bottom of the Bluff City list was AutoZone. The auto part retailer scored only a 25 with HRC because it does not offer health insurance coverage or other benefits to employees’ domestic partners and does not have a written non-discrimination policy covering gender identity in its employee handbook or manual. Also the company doesn’t make training available on gender expression issues and doesn’t participate in GLBT advertising, sponsorship or philanthropy.

Although it appears the most recognized brands headquartered in Memphis may not have a 100 percent commitment to the GLBT community, all is not lost. Many other companies with locations, offices or facilities in the Midsouth did score a perfect 100. (See below for a sampling of Memphis businesses and their CEI scores.) 

One of those is Nike. With the completion of a $107 million distribution center in north Memphis, the city will become the second-largest Nike home outside the athletic gear manufacturer’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. The Memphis distribution center currently employs more than 1,000 people, and according to the Nike spokesperson, that’s 1,000 people who are all treated equally.

“It is not just good for business, but it is also the right thing to do,” said Daniel Forrest, co-chair of the Nike Tennessee GLBTF Network in Memphis. “In fact, this year HRC will introduce additional qualifications to its Corporate Equality Index to incorporate elements of transgender policies. These policies are things that Nike has already implemented or been working on for a number of years. Effective March 1, Nike offers transgender benefits as part of its medical coverage through our healthcare provider.” 

Of course, in a tight job market, people looking to make a career switch might find it difficult to land a position with progressive companies like Nike, so many of us are forced to grow where we are planted for the time being. If you’re finding that your work environment isn’t supportive, you have a few courses of action.

First, check your company’s nondiscrimination policy to see if discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity are specifically spelled out. If it is and you feel you’ve been targeted, sit down with your human resources officer. But remember there is no federal protection for GLBT workers and few states offer safety nets for employees “let go” for their actual or perceived orientation.

Second, your company may have an affinity group for GLBT employees. If it does, join. If it doesn’t and there are other GLBT employees, put the wheels in motion and start one. Even if you’re not up for the challenge of starting a group, informally seek out and connect with other GLBT employees.

Third, remember that change doesn’t happen overnight, but if you have the courage to be out at work, you can slowly begin to change attitudes. Find those people in your organization who are supportive, and share your story.

“The secret to changing workplace culture attitudes is to identify and solicit help from allies within the organization. Many times our allies’ voices and their supportive actions for LGBT issues carry more weight and provide greater insight to those that are uneducated about the LGBT community,” noted Forrest.

Midsouth companies and their HRC CEI scores:

  • Wachovia = 100
  • Pfizer = 100
  • Walgreens = 100
  • Suntrust = 100
  • Bank of America = 100
  • Starbucks = 100
  • Coca-Cola = 100
  • UPS = 100
  • Gap = 100
  • Coors = 100
  • Schering-Plough = 100
  • Harrah’s Entertainment = 100
  • Deloitte = 100
  • Cargill = 100
  • Macy’s = 100
  • Hilton Hotels Corp. = 95
  • Costco = 93
  • Medtronic = 85
  • Northwest Airlines = 85
  • Wal-Mart = 40
  • Exxon Mobil Corp. = 0
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