By Tina Vasquez

In April of this year, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) reintroduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the House, which would bring uniform protections to all American workers, including those who are gay, straight, or transgender. The results of a recent poll seem to suggest the Act couldn’t have come at a better time.

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research fielded the poll for the Center for American Progress, which featured the opinions of likely 2012 voters. It was discovered that 73 percent of Americans polled strongly support workplace nondiscrimination protections for gay and transgender people. Political affiliations are often divisive, but this seems to be a topic most people can agree upon, with 81 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of independents, and 66 percent of Republicans supporting nondiscrimination laws.

Though support for nondiscrimination laws may be strong at the polls, the workplace is a whole different animal. The Williams Institute at UCLA recently identified 400 recent cases of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and that was just in the public sector. A recent study in the Harvard Business Review also revealed that about half of gay and lesbian white-collar workers are not “out” when they’re in the office. According to the Center for Work-Life Policy, closeted employees are more likely to distrust the organization; they are more likely to feel isolated; and they are apt to be less productive and leave the company because hiding who they are is too taxing.

These statistics illustrate how vital straight allies can be to LGBT employees and to companies as a whole. According to Kevin Jones, deputy director of Out & Equal, straight allies are those who do not identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), but who support and promote equality and justice for the LGBT community- and they can go a long way in building a diverse workforce.

Out & Equal

Originally founded by Executive Director Selisse Berry, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates is a San Francisco-based national nonprofit organization committed to ending employment discrimination for LGBT employees. For more than 10 years, the organization has worked tirelessly to create places of employment whose cultures embrace and support LGBT employees. Each year Out & Equal’s Workplace Summit draws in thousands of individuals, human resources professionals, diversity managers, employee resource group (ERG) leaders, and straight allies, enabling them to share best practices and formulate strategies that demonstrate their commitment to creating equality in the workplace.

When straight allies are excluded from the conversation about creating more inclusive, accepting workforces, LGBT groups end up working in a vacuum, but what the Workplace Summit does exceptionally well is engage straight allies. People from many diverse backgrounds come together in the workplace and according to Jones, in order for that to happen successfully, everyone must feel respected.

“Getting straight allies to join affinity groups is a great place to start when trying to create an out and equal workplace. Affinity groups are open to everyone, but it’s a matter of invitation, inclusion, or education. It’s important to acknowledge and value the contribution of allies and sometimes it’s as simple as approaching a co-worker and saying, ‘Would you like to know more about the issues that affect the LGBT community?’” Jones said.

“On a larger scale, companies need to educate themselves on what it actually means to be inclusive of the LGBT community. They may understand the policies that allow LGBT employees to be treated equally in the workforce, but the hard work is having a workplace environment that reflects the intentions behind the policies.”

Another major challenge companies face is not being able to see, quantify, and understand their LGBT employees because in anonymous, company-wide surveys, there is no way for gay employees to identify themselves as members of the LGBT community. If this information is not shared, the rates in terms of promotion and retention of LGBT employees is not revealed. As Jones said, You can’t manage what you don’t measure and “you won’t be able to test the effectiveness of any policies you have in place.”

Doing It Right

“Each company is in a different place in their journey when it comes to creating an out and equal workplace,” Jones said. “Certain industries, such as the technology sector, are more advanced in LGBT equality. At Out & Equal, it’s sometimes a matter of meeting a company where they are and helping them move towards equality.”

Some companies, however, don’t need a push. Jones cites IBM, Accenture, Ernst & Young, and Deloitte as leaders who have consistently demonstrated their commitment to the LGBT community by “walking the talk.” One company in particular has upped the ante on what it means to be a straight ally.

The national nonprofit Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) has over 200,000 members and supporters and each year they designate a company their Straight for Equality in Business award winner as a way of celebrating corporate leaders in ally excellence. The 2011 winner was MetLife, who embraced PFLAG’s Straight for Equality program when it initially launched in 2007, and went on to provide education and support for LGBT and straight ally employees in their company. MetLife has also hosted over 30 Straight for Equality in the Workplace training sessions around the country and for the past eight years, has received a perfect 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.

MetLife walks its talk by offering U.S. employees and their domestic same- and opposite-sex partners a variety of benefits and its LGBT affinity group, Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgenders and Allies at MetLife (GLAM) provides support and guidance for LGBT marketing strategies and recommends best practices to increase recruiting in the LGBT market.

The insurance company has also supported two groundbreaking works. By partnering with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, MetLife has helped certify businesses as LGBT-owned, enabling consumers to easily identify and support LGBT-owned businesses. MetLife also uses these businesses as vendors. Through MetLife’s research and education arm, the Mature Market Institute, the company produced the Out and Aging and Still Out, Still Aging reports in collaboration with the American Society on Aging. Unlike any other reports available, Out and Aging focuses on the financial and long-term care needs of LGBT boomers.

Though it was an honor to be awarded by PFLAG, MetLife’s chief diversity officer, Lynne DiStasio, wants the world to know that her company’s commitment is not fleeting.

“PFLAG’s recognition validates all of our hard work and sends the message that we’re doing things correctly, but we’re not Johnny come latelies to this,” DiStasio said. “We’ve had protection against sexual discrimination written into our corporate EEO policy since 1980. We work hard to make our associates aware of the issues LGBT employees face; we aim to educate and engage. The end goal is to reach a place where your gender identity or sexual orientation are non-issues. We want anyone from any group to know they can work at MetLife and make a difference here.”