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The Business of Equality

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For some time now, corporate America has been making steady progress in treating gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in a fair and equitable way in the workplace. Courts continue to rule on the side of equality on issues ranging from marriage to military service. Enacting legislation that supports workplace fairness is viewed favorably by a majority of Americans, so one would think politicians would be on a parallel track. But as we have seen in the past year, that is definitely not the case.

So why is it that the road to passing the Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would protect LGBT people in the workplace, has been anything but straightforward?

According to the 2010 Out & Equal Workplace Survey conducted by Harris Interactive® in conjunction with Out & Equal Workplace Advocates and Witeck-Combs Communications, over 70% of Americans surveyed believe that the standard for judging an employee should be how he or she does their job not their sexual orientation or gender identity. And yet, the legislation that would support such a standard faces continual obstacles in Congress.

In the face of those statistics many Americans are asking: what is the hold-up?

Congress might well look to corporate boardrooms for some answers. During the past decade, most of the largest U.S. corporations have expanded their employment non-discrimination policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity. In some cases the conversations that led to changed policies were long and challenging, but looking back over the past ten years, the speed with which corporations have adopted fairer policies for its LGBT employees has been remarkable.

The federal government -- as an employer -- has also made significant improvements in its LGBT specific workplace policies since 2008, where such changes did not require supporting legislation.

I understand that employers have a strong motivation for enacting inclusive policies, especially those whose competitive advantage is tied to the quality of their workforce. Being an employer of choice in order to attract and retain the best employees makes clear business sense. The most successful organizations recognize the importance of having a diverse workforce as a core piece of their talent management strategy ­ one that includes people from different communities, from all sexual orientations and gender identities.

That is just one of the reasons that over 2,000 employees from several hundred companies and government agencies are attending the 2010 Out & Equal Workplace Summit this week in Los Angeles to share leading practices for achieving truly inclusive workplaces. From entry-level employees to CEOs, LGBT employees and their colleagues will discuss the issues and strategies around workplace equality. They will be committing themselves to make a difference, and as a result, change will happen. Progress ­ largely in the private sector -- will be meaningful and it will continue to be fast.

It would be interesting to parachute in some of our political opponents and have them listen in on the conversations we will be having and could well persuade them to make the same kind of commitment to fair treatment of hard-working Americans.

I understand full well that the motivation for federal legislators to pass ENDA is not the same as this nation¹s large and successful corporations. It is not to gain a competitive edge in employment, although many corporations have endorsed ENDA as important for doing business in the U.S. If anything, theirs is a more important, principled reason.

The motivation for Congress to pass ENDA is simply because it is the right thing to do. When doing the right thing becomes a priority, ENDA will pass. The many courageous employers and employees who are working for equality in the workplace and already making a difference are waiting. Unemployed members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community who have faced employment discrimination and who have run out of time to wait deserve ENDA now.

Selisse Berry is founding executive director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, the nation's only national nonprofit organization specifically dedicated to creating safe and equitable workplaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

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