What Obama Should Do About Workplace Discrimination
The New York Times
Op-Ed by: M.V. Lee Badgett
February 6, 2012
LAST week, the defense contractor DynCorp International announced that it had changed its corporate policies to forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The company’s decision was voluntary but came under pressure: DynCorp recently agreed to a $155,000 settlement with an aircraft mechanic named James Friso, a heterosexual man who endured anti-gay epithets and other harassment at his DynCorp workplace. Publicity about that case drove more than 50,000 people to sign an online petition urging the company to change its policy.
DynCorp’s new policy is a welcome development — but it’s unfortunate that federal law still allows such discrimination. DynCorp has received billions of dollars in federal contracts over the last decade. Why should taxpayer money be used to buy goods and services from companies that permit discrimination based on a worker’s sexual orientation or gender identity?
Making sure taxpayer dollars don’t support companies that discriminate does not require an act of Congress. By issuing an executive order, President Obama can — and should — make nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity a requirement for doing business with the American public.
For more than 60 years, presidents have used executive orders to advance workplace protections against discrimination. From Franklin D. Roosevelt through Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter, presidents strengthened the federal commitment to equal employment opportunity by setting higher standards for federal contractors. In 1941, Roosevelt issued an executive order that forbade discrimination against any worker because of “race, creed, color or national origin” by companies receiving government defense contracts and vocational training programs. This executive order was the first step by the federal government to prohibit discrimination by private employers — two decades before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, finally outlawing employment discrimination based on race, sex and religion.
An executive order banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity by federal contractors might also be the first step toward federal legislation outlawing the same for all employees.
Today, discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is disturbingly common. Recent research by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that 27 percent of lesbian, gay or bisexual people had been harassed at work or lost a job because of their sexual orientation in the previous five years. Almost half of transgender people in a recent survey had experienced discrimination in hiring, promotion or job retention. Discrimination hits gay and bisexual men, in particular, in their paychecks: studies show that they earn less than heterosexual men with the same qualifications. And as James Friso’s case demonstrates, even heterosexual employees can experience anti-gay harassment.
The president can’t assume that state and local laws already protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Yes, 21 states have outlawed sexual-orientation discrimination, while 16 also forbid gender-identity discrimination, and many cities and counties have similar nondiscrimination ordinances. But only about half of the United States’ population lives in places with such laws, leaving millions of workers vulnerable.
In the past, executive orders setting standards for contractors have not only put an American ideal of equal opportunity into practice; they have also helped show employers that ending discrimination is good for business. Employers who act out of bias waste valuable training and often pass over the best person for the job. In the case of gay and transgender workers, workplace discrimination comes with an added cost to employers, leading other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers to fear disclosure and contributing to stress, illness and lower productivity.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence that nondiscrimination policies are good business policy comes from businesses themselves. A recent Williams Institute study of the 50 largest federal contractors and the 50 biggest Fortune 500 companies found that nearly all had policies against sexual orientation discrimination, and almost all said that diversity was good for business. They also described their policies against sexual-orientation and gender-identity discrimination as a sound business decision, resulting in more productive and loyal employees, more good ideas and a stronger customer base. That means the federal government and American taxpayers get more efficient contractors, whether for designing software applications or supporting troops in Afghanistan.
Requiring federal contractors not to discriminate against workers based on sexual orientation or gender identity lets the American public win twice — as taxpayers and as workers. New research of mine shows that by issuing an executive order, President Obama could cover more than 16 million additional workers against discrimination. Following the legacy of almost every president since World War II and the lead of most of the nation’s top companies, the president should once again put our government on the side of equal opportunity for all.