Ohio may soon join other states in outlawing sexual orientation discrimination by private employers. It already bans such discrimination in government employment. Plus, a number of local ordinances already offer protection in some cities and towns.
It may be time for employers to rethink their employment discrimination policies and include sexual orientation. One good first step is to include anti-gay discrimination training in your regular anti-discrimination program.
Local ordinances, federal proposals
Local ordinances apply to relatively few employers and provide limited remedies to wronged employees. Still, employers don’t need litigation and damaging negative publicity. Thus, it is cost effective and beneficial to train managers and supervisors on anti-gay bias. (See box below for examples of Ohio’s local anti-discrimination ordinances.)
In November, the U.S. House passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which bars employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against employees because of their sexual orientation.
If passed into law, the bill would permit only disparate treatment claims—not disparate impact claims currently allowed under federal anti-discrimination laws. As part of a compromise, the House dropped language protecting transgender individuals.
The bill now goes to the Senate where a similar bill failed by one vote in 1996. The largest obstacle to the bill becoming law is President Bush’s vow to veto the legislation. Senate Democrats may wait to take up the bill after a new president takes office.
Private employers that operate in multiple states probably already have language in their anti-discrimination policies concerning sexual orientation. For those that don’t, now may be the time to investigate exactly what policy changes would be necessary to protect gay workers.
But policy and company culture changes require more than adding a few clauses to existing policies. Managers and supervisors must be able to recognize anti-gay bias, just as well-trained bosses currently note racial discrimination and sexual harassment almost instinctively.
Training is the key. Employers must make it clear that anti-gay discrimination can have the same corrosive effect on company morale and productivity that racial discrimination and sexual harassment do. Discrimination in any form is a divisive force.
As discrimination laws change and workers become more open about their sexual orientations, employers run a greater risk of being sued for discrimination. Given the potential for lost productivity and money, anti-gay bias training makes a lot of sense for employers’ bottom lines.
Most employers already sponsor some anti-discrimination training, usually concerning racial, religious or gender discrimination. That training often includes sexual harassment training. Whether the training is conducted in-house or through an outside firm, employers should consult with the trainer now about including sexual orientation in the curriculum.
Professional trainers advise employers not to conduct specialized training sessions just to deal with one protected group. Those receiving the training can tune out too easily if they think the training doesn’t apply to them.
Instead, make employees understand that harassment and discrimination targeted at any person because of membership in any protected class is wrong. It doesn’t matter whether the target is gay, female or a racial or religious minority.
Getting ahead of the curve
The proposed federal law will most likely be passed in one form or another eventually.
Plus, Ohio’s Legislature is currently considering a bill that would ban sexual orientation discrimination in private employment. In March, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced two bills that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in jobs and housing. Gov. Ted Strickland has said he will sign the measure if it comes to his desk.
It’s largely irrelevant to the day-to-day workplace whether the law comes from the federal, state or local government. Employers are more likely to hire openly gay workers as time goes on. Harassing them or discriminating against them simply doesn’t make good business sense. Creating a workplace that welcomes everyone does.
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