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The latest step toward expanding equality for LGBT employees

Several weeks ago, President Obama took a big step toward equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the U.S.  He signed an executive order that forbids employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by federal contractors that sell goods and services to the U.S. government.  This marks the first time federal policy has been used to require equal employment opportunities for LGBT workers in the private sector in the U.S.

LGBT activists had been pushing the president to take this step since he took office. A bill that would forbid discrimination by all private employers has been blocked in Congress for many years.  (It won passage in the U.S. Senate, but the House of Representatives refuses to vote on the bill.)  At least the President’s signature moves the U.S. closer to the standard being set by more than 100 other countries, including those in the EU, that forbid sexual orientation discrimination in employment. Approximately 19 countries have laws against gender identity discrimination.

President Obama signing the executive order on July 21, 2014. Photo by M. V. Lee Badgett.

President Obama signing the executive order on July 21, 2014. Photo by M. V. Lee Badgett.

Research from around the world continues to demonstrate the need for these protections.  A growing set of studies compares how employers react to LGBT applicants and non-LGBT applicants in Austria, Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Greece, Netherlands, Sweden, U.K., and the U.S.  Those studies show that LGBT applicants are less likely to get job interviews or job offers.  LGBT people also report experiences of workplace discrimination all over the world, even where that discrimination is illegal.

On the flipside, evidence shows that efforts to treat LGBT workers fairly, whether through laws or voluntary employer efforts, are good for workers and employers.  Good policies reduce discrimination and make it easier for LGBT workers to be open about their identities.  More openness improves the health—and, as a likely result, productivity–of LGBT workers.  Employers also implement LGBT-supportive policies to improve the retention and recruitment of a skilled workforce.

A diverse workforce is a business reality, whether within a single country or across countries.  Employers want and need policies to manage that diversity in a way that enhances economic outcomes.  At least partly because of that reality, many big employers have been in the forefront of efforts to stop anti-LGBT discrimination.  They have worked to align their official policies and practices with the principle of nondiscrimination.  In the United States, many employers have also supported changes in federal law related to civil rights and federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Next on a global to-do list: Those companies could be bigger players in the expanding global debate about respecting the human rights of LGBT people.  That’s not just a debate in the U.S., but has been present in many positive and LGBT-supportive directions—but also in some negative and deeply harmful counter-directions—in many countries in the last few years.  That business case for diversity and LGBT equality also provides a broader economic case for LGBT equality as well.

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