INSIGHT: LGBTQ Workplace Protections—Lessons from Goldman Sachs Litigation

July 18, 2019, 8:01 AM

In June, former Goldman Sachs Vice President William Littleton sued the financial institution and two of his former managers, alleging they routinely discriminated against him on the basis of his sexual orientation. His six causes of action were based on New York state and city laws outlawing discrimination that remains legal in more than 20 states.

Goldman Sachs’ statements indicate its public commitment to diversity and even Littleton’s complaint mentions the company’s LGBT Network and Steering Committee and the company’s public pronouncement that it wants to cultivate a diverse work environment and workforce. Even reporters covering the Littleton case have highlighted Goldman Sachs’ public commitment to diversity.

Still, Littleton alleged acts of discrimination including claims his managers took professional development opportunities away from him because of his sexuality and terminated his employment after he complained to human resources about the alleged discriminatory behavior.

This case shows that companies can be publicly and internally committed to diversity initiatives, but they need buy-in from employees to make them effective and meaningful.

Public Commitment to Diversity/Inclusion

LGBTQ employees often seek out employment opportunities with employers that publicly express commitment to diversity and inclusion. In the digital age, prospective employees are able to learn about employer approaches to diversity on websites, in print, and in corporate sponsorships of LGBTQ-focused civil rights organizations. While these public pronouncements are reassuring to some, they ring hollow for LGBTQ employees who face discrimination in the workplace.

Regardless of whether the allegations in Littleton’s complaint are proven true, the allegations are familiar to LGBTQ employees across the country who do not have protections afforded by state or local laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Internal Implementation of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

In a race to secure public support and keep up with competitors, many companies make a crucial mistake when they implement diversity and inclusion initiatives: they do not secure the buy-in of their employees.

As part of the larger goal of creating workplaces that promote mutual respect among employees, companies must solicit input and feedback from employees to understand what programs, policies, procedures, and financial investments will improve and maintain the respect employees have for one another, while also protecting marginalized groups.

Once employees discover their similarities with one another, their differences seem less important, and employees are more likely to bond over their commonalities. Without the support of employees, creating and maintaining a LGBTQ-friendly environment is impossible.

Three Steps to a Thoughtful, Buy-In Approach

Instead of rushing to implement a haphazard non-discrimination policy, employers should take a more thoughtful approach to protecting their employees. These three steps can help.

Step One. Employers should solicit feedback from employees before implementing new initiatives that affect entire workforces.

Diversity, inclusion, and anti-discrimination measures are deeply personal to many people. When corporate executives issue edicts without listening to their workforces, employees may not feel invested in anti-discrimination initiatives and may not commit themselves to the initiatives’ goals.

Companies may remedy this apathy by circulating employee surveys that permit employees to voice their concerns and opinions on the companies’ efforts to create respectful and inclusive workplaces. Once employees become part of the decision-making process, they are more likely to “buy in” to companies’ policy goals.

Step Two. Employers should include representatives from across their companies when developing policies that promote inclusion and welcoming workplaces.

Too often, companies do not solicit the input of individuals who do not necessarily identify as members of underrepresented groups. However, individuals who are not members of underrepresented groups are often in positions of power within organizations and, by extension, are in positions of power.

There are many heterosexual individuals who support LGBTQ rights and protections, just as there are members of majority ethnic and religious communities that support protections for underrepresented ethnic and religious communities. By gathering input from all employees, employers are more likely to identify allies and individuals in decision-making roles who can work with diverse individuals to promote acceptance in the workplace.

Step Three. Companies should implement inclusion and non-discrimination efforts before issuing press releases. Change within an organization is more important than publicizing proposed changes.

By training employees on the importance of inclusion initiatives, employers can produce employee ambassadors who will share the goals and benefits of creating supportive and welcoming environments. Once employers secure the support of their workforces, they can provide definitive examples of how these initiatives benefit their companies.

As the nation waits for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider three cases next term that all address protections for LGBTQ individuals, companies must take proactive steps to ensure that all employees and potential employees walk into work environments that value employee contributions, regardless of sexual orientation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Trevor J. Hardy is an associate at Ulmer & Berne LLP. He represents clients in a wide range of complex business and employment disputes, provides strategic advisory services, and also counsels clients on practices to avoid litigation, including implementing sound employment policies and procedures.

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