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Workplace becoming more gay-friendly

By T.K. MALOY, UPI Deputy Business Editor   |   Sept. 29, 2004 at 3:53 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Sept. 29 (UPI) -- Amid the continued public and political debate over same-sex marriage, one recent workplace study found that most heterosexual workers agree that leave rights for family and medical emergencies should apply equally to same-sex partnerships and married employees.

According to a study released Wednesday at the third annual Out & Equal Workplace Summit, a conference for gay and lesbian rights advocates and human resources professional, seven in ten of heterosexuals workers polled feel that leave rights for family and medical emergencies (as outlined in the Family and Medical Leave Act) should applied equally for gay and straight workers.

The survey was conducted by pollster Harris Interactive in conjunction with Witeck-Combs Communications, a strategic public relations and marketing communications firm which specializes in the gay and lesbian market. The Out & Equal Workplace Summit is being held at the Wyndham Buttes Resort in Tempe, AZ, from Sept. 30 until Oct 2.

The survey also showed a majority of heterosexuals believe that same-sex partners of employees should be treated equally for workplace benefits that are usually extended automatically to the married spouses of employees, including:

-- Tax-free health insurance benefits (67 percent);

-- Health insurance coverage under COBRA when an employee leaves a job (66 percent);

-- Relocation expenses when their spouse/partner is transferred by their employer (65 percent);

-- Leave benefits for employees who experience the loss of a spouse/partner or close family member(78 percent.)

"The diversity of America's workforce helps create an environment of appreciation for our differences and our common threads as American families," said Selisse Berry, executive director of Out & Equal, the advocacy group holding the conference.

"We still have a lot of work to do and that's why the Out & Equal Workplace Summit is so important." Berry said. "By providing effective tools and offering useful lessons from the nation's leaders in diversity, others can learn how to transform their workplaces to be environments where all employees are valued for their contributions and talent, not their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression."

The national online survey of 2,242 Americans (of whom six percent self identified as gay or lesbian) investigated workplace attitudes towards gays and lesbians as well as other populations including African Americans, Hispanic Americans, people with disabilities, women, seniors, Jews and Muslims.

"A majority of Americans clearly believe GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) employees deserve to be treated equally in the workplace when it comes to health and family benefits," said Wesley Combs, president of Witeck-Combs Communications.

"Americans feel that fairness in the workplace has nothing to do with one's sexual orientation but instead on the individual's ability to perform and be a part of the larger workforce."

Out & Equal noted that when Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in May 2004, other states introduced legislation that could potentially prevent companies from offering the same health benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees as it does to the spouses of their married employees. In the Out & Equal survey, when asked what impact the passage of legislation within a particular state that prevented companies from offering health benefits equally to the spouses as well as same-sex partners of all employees could have on a company's ability to retain and recruit the most qualified employees, 62 percent of heterosexuals said the impact would be "moderate" to "a great deal."

Six in ten heterosexuals also said the impact to a company would be "moderate" to "a great deal" in its ability to remain competitive with companies in other states where no such restrictions apply.

Out & Equal said that when looking at the three-year trend, attitudes towards gays and lesbians and their workplace benefits appear largely unchanged. However, the group added that some data from the survey suggests that heterosexuals may be more comfortable than ever working alongside their gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT) boss or co-worker.

Specifically, 49 percent of heterosexuals said they either somewhat or strongly disagree with the statement "I would be uncomfortable if my boss were openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender." More than half of heterosexuals somewhat or strongly disagree with the same statement when applied to co-workers. When the option "strongly disagree" is isolated (38 percent for "boss" and 43 percent for co-worker), it appears that heterosexuals are increasingly more accepting of gays and lesbians in the workplace.

"Corporate marketing campaigns to GLBT consumers are on the rise especially among companies that promote fairness and equal benefits among their workforce. Yet, even though protections for gays and lesbians in corporate America are increasing, attitudes still must catch up," Combs said.

"I predict that the most successful companies will be those that understand best how to put their internal philosophy in synch with their marketplace strategies. They are the ones that will establish lasting reputations and achieve the highest employee and customer loyalties," he added.

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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