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Lessons from Largo: Nondiscrimination Policies in the Public and Private Sectors

In a world in which business and politics often collide, controversial cases involving discrimination frequently determine where employee rights begin and corporate freedoms end.

March 13, 2007
Related Topics: Technology
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In a world in which business and politics often collide, controversial cases involving discrimination frequently determine where employee rights begin and corporate freedoms end. In Largo, Fla., one such story recently has come to light — the dismissal of City Manager Steve Stanton has opened the door to debate about the rights of transgender employees in the workplace and the legal ramifications of the issue for the private sector.

In January, Stanton informed a select group of city officials, including Largos Mayor Pat Gerard, that he planned to have sexual reassignment surgery in the coming year, using behavior adaptations and medical procedures to become Susan Stanton.

In mid-February, one of Stanton’s confidants leaked this information to the media, causing a public outcry and prompting the Largo City Commission to hold a special meeting to discuss the termination of his tenure. After a four-hour meeting, the commission voted 5 to 2 to put Stanton on administrative leave until the decision could be finalized.

This outcome has created controversy, causing advocacy groups for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) rights to condemn the commission’s resolution. Many supporters say Stanton should sue.

Lynn D. Lieber, Esq., founder and CEO of Workplace Answers, a compliance training organization, said there are many different legal venues Stanton could use to sue the city.

She also said organizations in both the public and private sectors need to learn from this case to protect themselves from discrimination lawsuits and guard their reputations.

“Such cases exact a heavy price on organizations in time, legal fees and reputation,” Lieber said. “A single highly publicized discrimination lawsuit can affect an organization’s reputation, the morale of its employees and its perception among job candidates for many years in the future.”

She said many companies already recognize the business value of creating full equality in the workplace, which is demonstrated by the growing number of businesses that have received a perfect rating in the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) Corporate Equality Index (CEI).

In this index, corporations are measured on whether they include gender identity and expression (GI&E) and sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policy, offer inclusive benefits to employees’ domestic partners, use advertising that is nondiscriminatory to the GLBT community, etc.

In 2006, 138 companies, including Coca-Cola, General Motors and Goldman Sachs, earned a perfect score, which is up from 101 companies in 2005.

“The Human Rights Campaign has created a lot of competition in the private sector to have these policies and to incorporate these people into the workplace,” Lieber said. “This is something that people look for now when they choose to work for an organization or consume their products and services.”

Seventeen states, as well as the District of Columbia, prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. California, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Washington protect against GI&E discrimination.

Even outside of these states, Lieber said, companies need to take steps to help their workers become more aware of GI&E issues. Education, she said, is the first step.

“From what I’ve seen, employees, managers and companies just don’t have the requisite knowledge about gender identity and expression issues,” Lieber said. “If someone’s transitioning, a lot of people just don’t know what that means or how to interact with that person. It leads to a lot of issues in the workplace.”

To avoid lawsuits and keep the workplace functioning, it’s best for a company to develop policies that are friendly to transgender employees before the need for those policies arise, Lieber said.

It’s important for them to add sexual orientation and GI&E to their nondiscrimination policies, create gender-neutral dress codes, have guidelines that set a time frame and protocol for transitioning workers and ensure employees’ privacy.

Lieber said taking these steps early will keep companies ahead of the game as discrimination laws evolve and more transgender people come out in the workplace.

“A lot of transgender people haven’t been in the private sector because it’s been a very unfriendly place for them,” she said. “But more and more want to have the same opportunities to work in the private sector, to make more money and to have a career. That’s why we’re seeing it more in the private sector and having to deal with it.”

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