This week, some of America’s biggest and best known corporations, including Walt Disney Co., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., and consumer products giant Unilever, will descend on Boston to recruit students from the nation’s top business schools.
The companies will promote industry trends and career opportunities. And they will also highlight policies that make their workplaces friendly, comfortable, and inclusive for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees.
On Thursday, more than 1,000 MBA candidates, corporate executives, and recruiters will gather at the Seaport Hotel and World Trade Center for the annual Reaching Out LGBT MBA Conference, which aims to connect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, business school students with some of the nation’s leading companies. Now in its 14th year, the conference has grown from 150 students networking over boxed lunches at Harvard Business School to a three-day event with high-profile sponsors, a sign that corporate America is more progressive than the public sector when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.
The first major public company to offer health benefits to gay and lesbian couples, in 1991, was Lotus Development Corp., a Cambridge software company — more than a decade before Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Nearly all of the 636 major companies surveyed this year by the Human Rights Campaign — 99 percent — prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation; 80 percent forbid discrimination based on gender identity. Yet there are no federal laws, and only a handful of state laws, that do the same.
“There’s really no question that corporate America is leading the charge in the area of workplace fairness,” said Paul Guequierre, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT civil rights organization in Washington. “In 29 states you can be fired from a job for being gay, and in 34 states for being transgender. That sad fact makes corporate nondiscrimination policies vital for LGBT workers.”
Executives say their companies haven’t put these policies in place for altruistic reasons. They are hungry for talent and want to attract the best and the brightest. In addition, labor specialists say, a diverse workforce contributes to a company’s profitability. A variety of experiences and opinions leads to a more well-rounded, creative process, and can appeal to a wider array of consumers.
Like many people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, Hannah Yankelevich, who will graduate with an MBA from Dartmouth College next year, said she’ll consider how companies treat LGBT workers when she weighs offers. She’s thinking about returning to General Mills in Minneapolis, where she interned over the summer, because the chief executive announced that the company opposed an amendment recognizing marriage only as the union between a man and a woman.
“I wouldn’t work for a company that didn’t offer a supportive environment for the LGBT community, ” said Yankelevich, 27, one of the organizers of the conference.
State Street Corp. is attending the Reaching Out conference for the first time this year as it seeks to further expand its recruiting into minority and underrepresented communities. The Boston financial services giant attends conferences held by the National Black MBA Association and the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting for the same reason.
“Were not going to advance State Street unless we have access to the best talent, and that’s by offering an environment where employees can bring their whole selves to the workplace,” said Mike Scannell, head of talent acquisition and global inclusion. “For us to not be open to individuals regardless of their background is really prohibiting us from getting access to the best resources and talent that are out there.”
Along with policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, State Street has an employee group for LGBT workers and offers domestic partner health insurance, including transgender benefits for prescriptions and laboratory tests. The company is considering covering sex change surgery.
Mike Harrington, vice president and senior counsel at State Street, said he probably wouldn’t have come to State Street from a Boston law firm in 1998 if the company wasn’t welcoming to gay employees. In fact, Harrington told a headhunter that he wouldn’t apply for an opening at one New England company because it didn’t offer health insurance for same-sex partners. But it’s more than the benefits that have kept him at State Street. He feels comfortable plastering his office with pictures of his two sons and partner of 12 years.
“My family is the same as everyone else’s,” he said. “For me, it’s more about being in a place where I talk about Dave in the same way that the woman who sits next to me talks about her husband.”
Antonio Gomez-Lopez, a second-year student at the MIT Sloan School of Management, feels the same way. Gomez-Lopez, who helped organize the Reaching Out conference, said a company’s LGBT policies play a crucial role in deciding where he will work.
“I don’t want to hold a double life,” he said.