Pride at Work: Best Companies for Gay Rights in Canada and the US

Barack Obama made history this May when he became the first-ever sitting US president to endorse same-sex marriage, saying that his personal stance on gay marriage had “evolved” from supporting civil union laws to a full-fledged endorsement of same-sex marriage.

Obama’s landmark affirmation comes at a time when it seems like there is a sea change in public opinion towards gay rights, what with a June CNN national poll finding that more than half of Americans believe that same-sex marriage should be legalized.

However, things are a bit different at workplaces. The Los Angeles-based Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy aggregated a number of surveys and found that between 15% and 43% of American gay and transgender workers have experienced some form of discrimination at their workplaces.

In Canada, the situation is a little better. The national attention given to debates about same-sex civil rights in the past two decades has meant that many Canadians have been exposed to and understand the issue of equal rights very well, says Canadian Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce co-founder and chairman, Bruce McDonald.

 

That explains why 72% of Canadian LGBT workers who responded to a 2011 Angus Reid public opinion poll said that they feel the attitudes in their workplace towards LGBT people have improved over the past five years. Still, at least one-third of respondents said they have experienced some form of discrimination throughout the course of their professional lives, so there is still progress to be made.

But LGBT employees should take heart: In the same way that public opinion on gay rights has evolved swiftly, major corporations have increasingly come out to recognize the LGBT cause and to support LGBT workers. To commemorate Pride Week, Minyanville has compiled a list of 10 companies in North America that have helped blaze the trail for equal rights.

TD Bank

For years, TD Bank (TD) has made benefits for same-sex partnerships available to its employees. But in 2004, when only 94 people out of a workforce of 47,000 in Canada signed up for those benefits, the company realized that perhaps it might not be as accepting an environment for LGBT employees as they believed. TD Bank swiftly worked to make changes, including setting up a robust Employee Pride Network across Canada, whose membership has tripled since its inception in 2005.

TD has also publicly come out in support of the LGBT community, becoming a top sponsor of Pride Toronto and the Pride Parade, and also sponsoring the 16th International AIDS Conference held in Toronto in 2006. The company also produces year-round advertising campaigns that feature “out and proud” LGBT TD employees.

“TD’s support of the LGBT community is not about making moral judgments. It’s about supporting a community that is an important part of our customer base and employee population. It’s also about our overall commitment to diversity – something we take very seriously," surmised Executive Vice President of Commercial Banking Paul Douglas in an October 2007 article in the Ivey Business Journal. "On the diversity frontier, we see ourselves at the frontlines, working hard to show leadership and achieve progress. We want people to look at TD and see an example of how things should work.”

 

JC Penney

It’s unlikely that JC Penney (JCP) anticipated the amount of controversy that would result from hiring an openly gay spokesperson. The department store was trying to reinvent itself when it brought on the incredibly likeable and charismatic Ellen DeGeneres to breathe new life into its outdated brand. Far from polarizing, DeGeneres is a mainstream figure, having hosted an NBC (CMCSA) talk show for the last nine years, while also serving as a judge on the Fox (NWS) hit American Idol, and appearing in commercial campaigns from American Express (AXP) and CoverGirl (PG).

So Ellen seemed like a pretty safe bet for JC Penney -- a “no-brainer,” in fact, said the company’s CEO Ron Johnson in a CBS This Morning interview.

But the endorsement was the wrong move, according to the One Million Moms organization, a project of the American Family Association, which threatened to boycott JC Penney unless the retailer dropped DeGeneres. JC Penney not only refused to cave to their demands, but Johnson sought to more closely align his company with gay rights, saying it “shares the same values” as its celebrity sponsor.

Goldman Sachs

Back in February, Lloyd Blankfein made an announcement that floored pro- and anti-gay camps alike. The much-maligned Goldman Sachs (GS) CEO became the “Wall Street face of marriage equality” when he signed on to be the Human Rights Campaign’s first national corporate spokesman on the issue.

But that endorsement didn’t come “without a price,” Blankfein reportedly told Out on the Street, a gay rights advocacy group based in the financial sector. When speaking to the group last week, Blankfein revealed that his firm has already lost one client. “There was some adverse reaction by someone,” Blankfein said. “They didn't want to continue a relationship that they had with us in money management.”

Blankfein opted to protect the client’s anonymity but his remarks suggest the account was a high profile one: “[I]f you heard the name, it wouldn't surprise you,” he said.

Marriage equality isn’t exactly a new passion of Blankfein’s. Before lending his name to the Human Rights Campaign, he’d successfully lobbied the New York State Legislature to pass a same-sex marriage law last summer. And, as an employer, Blankfein has created policies that reimburse Goldman employees for extra taxes they pay on domestic partner benefits.

Bank of Nova Scotia

Rick White, vice-president of marketing at Scotiabank, explained the thinking behind the bank's support of LGBT causes to the Globe and Mail in 2009: "Let's be active within the community, among events and causes that they care about. Let's be genuine about that.”

That is why the Bank of Nova Scotia (BNS.TO), commonly known as Scotiabank, has moved away from moves such as placing mortgage ads in gay publications and turned instead to sponsorying LGBT-linked causes. For example, since 2007, Scotiabank has been the title sponsor of the annual AIDS Walk for Life, Canada’s most important HIV/AIDS fundraising and awareness event.

Within the company, Scotiabank has also been taking active steps to ensure LGBT employees feel supported. In 2008, the bank started the employee resource group Scotia Pride, which Cory Garlough, Scotiabank’s vice president of global employment strategies, described as “an inclusive committee that promotes activities, partnerships, and initiatives that may be of interest to LGBT employees and friends.” The group regularly hosts networking events that are open to all Scotia employees, not just LGBT ones. It also keeps members up to date about LGBT-related events that the bank sponsors, such as the AIDS Walk and the Friends For Life Bike Rally, which is a six-day bike tour from Toronto to Montreal aimed at raising money for the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation.

Ben & Jerry’s

No surprise here. The self-described “activist brand” owned by Unilever (UL) has used its products to reflect its politics. Based in South Burlington, Vermont, the ice cream maker celebrated the Green Mountain State’s passage of same-sex marriage in 2009 (the first state to do so through legislation without a court ruling) with a makeover of its Chubby Hubby flavor. Hubby Hubby sundaes were served throughout Vermont store locations.

In March of this year, in response to the United Kingdom’s announcement to enact gay marriage legislation, Ben & Jerry’s began dubbing its Oh My Apple Pie flavor (not available in the US) the matrimonially-minded Apple-y Ever After. Ben & Jerry's people “believe love is love,” said company spokeswoman Liz Stewart: “Marriage should just be defined by love and commitment.”

Telus

Launching flagship concept stores oriented specifically to the gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning community – that’s how strongly Telus (TU), the Burnaby, British Columbia-based telecommunications company, is committed to supporting the cause. The first Come As You Are, or Caya, store was opened in Vancouver in October 2010.

"We heard from our team members from the LGBTQ community and allies within the community that a retail environment like this would be well-received," Kenn Hamlin, director of special projects for Telus, explains. "Hence Caya was born."

Besides featuring, as the Vancouver Sun describes, “20-foot ceilings, designer lighting, exclusive designer accessories for phones, MP3 players, e-books and laptops, photo processing, cameras, and other services,” each Caya store also has a feature called a 'Giving Wall,' which allows customers to donate to an anti-bullying program called "Out in Schools."

Telus has also been active in sponsoring LGBTQ causes and groups like the Quebec anti-homophobia non-profit, Fondation Émergence, and the helpline, Gai Écoute. The company was also one of the first, if not the first, Canadian corporations to support the “It Gets Better” campaign, with the company’s LGBT employees having made a video to fight against gay bullying.

 

Royal Bank of Canada You know you’re a gay-friendly company when you receive complaints from as far back as 2004 that you’re gone “too far in support of homosexual activism.” Indeed, in slamming RBC for its LGBT-friendly policies, conservative Canadian newspaper The Interim also helpfully sums up RBC’s achievements in that area:

"The Royal Bank of Canada (or RBC) has been actively supporting homosexual organizations and events for years through corporate donations and sponsorships. It publicly trumpeted its sponsorship of Toronto’s gay pride parade and a number of gay and lesbian groups list RBC as a benefactor. Yet the bank’s support of homosexual causes seems to go beyond donations. It made the news a couple of years ago when it actually refused to open an account for a Quebec-based pro-family organization after the said group voiced opinions critical of “the Gay Games” – a sporting event restricted to homosexual athletes which is to take place in Montreal in 2006. RBC, in essence, disagreed with the group’s opinions on the subject and opted not to have it as a client.

All of that sounds good for LGBT inclusiveness, no? Additionally, in 2009, RBC also began commemorating National Coming Out Day in Canada. Last year, as part of celebrations for the occasion, RBC published an interview with openly lesbian executive Anne-Marie Vanier on its intranet, which can be viewed by the company’s 74,000 employees around the world.

Apple and Google

In the 2008 presidential election, the very same electorate that voted for Obama by historic margins -- not seen since the 1936 election of FDR -- also voted on a ballot initiative that banned same-sex couples from marrying. But in an effort to prevent Prop 8 from appearing on the California ballot, Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) were among a group of Silicon Valley leaders -- including Intuit (INTU), Yahoo (YHOO), Adobe (ADBE), Cisco (CSCO), eBay (EBAY), Omidyar Network, and Facebook (FB) -- that joined the No on Prop 8 campaign.

Cupertino donated $100,000 to the effort. “We strongly believe that a person's fundamental rights -- including the right to marry -- should not be affected by their sexual orientation,” the company said in a statement issued on its Hot News site. “Apple views this as a civil rights issue, rather than just a political issue, and is therefore speaking out publicly against Proposition 8.”

Mountain View’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page also put their profits where their politics were with a combined $140,000 contribution to the cause. In its own blog statement, the search engine giant explained its position: “[F]urther government encroachment on personal lives, ambiguously written text -- it is the chilling and discriminatory effect of the proposition on many of our employees that brings Google to publicly oppose Proposition 8. While we respect the strongly-held beliefs that people have on both sides of this argument, we see this fundamentally as an issue of equality.”

Boeing

Last century, when public opinion was still far from being on the side of gay rights, the last place one may have expected to find forward-thinking on the issue would be inside an aerospace and defense corporation. That’s why, in 1999, Boeing (BA) made headlines for being an early adopter of same-sex domestic partner benefits for employees.

A decade later, Boeing took up the legislative fight to extend domestic partnership rights in its state. Joining a Washington-based corporate coalition that included Microsoft (MSFT), Nike (NKE), Puget Sound Energy, RealNetworks (RNWK), Vulcan Inc., and, later, Starbucks (SBUX), Boeing publicly supported the state’s 2009 ballot measure, Referendum 71, that turned a domestic-partnership bill into law.

A joint statement from the coalition read: “Overturning this law would undo years of equal rights progress made in Washington state. We do not believe that this step backward would be in the best interest for the future of our state.”

Referendum 71 passed and set a precedent for a state’s voters approving gay rights measures in the voting booth.

Bank of Montreal

"So often when people talk about supporting the LGBT community, the 'T' is an afterthought," said Sonya Kunkel, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, at Bank of Montreal (BMO) Financial Group in a press release. That was why the bank, in an affirmation of its commitment to the LGBT cause, hosted its first Transgender Awareness discussion forum in May this year in honor of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

BMO’s support of the transgender community extends beyond discussion forums. In 2008, the bank hired high-profile Canadian transgender political activist Enza Anderson to work at its branch on Church Street in the gay district of Toronto.

“That to me is a year-round constant attempt at connecting and being part of the queer community,” commented gay activist and radio and television personality Shaun Proulx on the hiring of Anderson.



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