Wal-Mart Adds Discrimination Protections For Gays, Lesbians

July 2, 2003 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Wal-Mart Stores, long the target of workplace discrimination lawsuits and under pressure from gay rights groups, has brought gay and lesbian employees under the umbrella of its antidiscrimination policy.

A Seattle gay rights foundation that had invested in Wal-Mart and then lobbied the company for two years to change its policy, first disclosed the giant retailer’s latest move, according to a New York Times news report. The group, Pride Foundation, which along with several investment management firms holding stock in Wal-Mart had met as shareholders with company officials to discuss a policy shift, got a Wal-Mart letter outlining the new employee protections. Wal-Mart officials confirmed the policy change to the Times.

Mona Williams, Wal-Mart’s vice president for communications, told the Times that Wal-Mart was sending a letter to its 3,500 stores and that store managers would then convey the policy change to employees. While investors like Pride Foundation had a role in the decision, Williams said the most important factor was a letter to senior management officials about six weeks ago from several gay Wal-Mart employees, saying that unless the company changed its policy the employees would “continue to feel excluded.”

As outlined in the letter to Pride Foundation, Wal-Mart’s new policy states, “We affirm our commitment and pledge our support to equal opportunity employment for all qualified persons, regardless of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability or status as a veteran or sexual orientation.”

It goes on to say that managers and supervisors “shall recruit, hire, train and promote in all job positions” based on those principles and “ensure that all personnel actions” are taken based on those principles. The company said that it also revised its policy on harassment and inappropriate conduct to include sexual orientation and that the new written policy would encourage employees to report discriminatory behavior to management

“It’s the right thing to do for our employees,” Williams said in a Times telephone interview. “We want all of our associates to feel they are valued and treated with respect – no exceptions. And it’s the right thing to do for our business.”

Because Wal-Mart, which has more than 1 million employees, is the nation’s largest private employer, the evolution of its HR policies and practices is carefully watched around the country.

Discrimination Protections

The decision to include gay employees under rules that prohibit workplace discrimination was hailed by gay rights groups, already buoyed by last week’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Texas sodomy law, as a sign of how far corporate America has come in accepting gay employees.

With Wal-Mart making the policy change, nine of the 10 largest Fortune 500 companies now have rules barring discrimination against gay employees, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group in Washington, DC, that monitors discrimination policies and laws.The exception is the Exxon Mobil Corporation, which was created in 1999 after Exxon acquired Mobil, and then revoked a Mobil policy that provided medical benefits to partners of gay employees, as well as a policy that included sexual orientation as a category of prohibited discrimination (See Partnering Up ).

Wal-Mart said it had no plans to extend medical benefits to unmarried couples, but gay rights groups that have pressed for coverage for domestic partners said they would continue to lobby the company to do so.

Wal-Mart has long been the target of organized labor, and some of its labor practices have been challenged in lawsuits (See Wal-Mart’s Union Fight as Hot as Ever in Court and NLRB ). One lawsuit, filed in San Francisco, accused the company of favoring men over women in promotions and pay. In addition, the company faces more than 40 lawsuits accusing the company of pressuring or forcing employees to work unpaid hours (See Wal-Mart Hit with Overtime Verdict ).