The “Coming Out” Challenge

African American lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender professionals are trying to gain more ground in corporate America, but unchecked discrimination still exists.

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O'Neale

Since the start of her career, Rosalyn Taylor O’Neale, 59, has always been clear about what it means to be an African American, a woman, and a lesbian in corporate America, but it has never stopped her from successfully pursuing her goals. As the vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer for Campbell Soup Co. in Camden, New Jersey, she is responsible for helping her organization create a diverse and inclusive culture around the globe, focusing not only on attracting diverse candidates but on issues around retention, development, and engagement. O’Neale believes who she is as an individual is in itself a great asset to her company.

“I’ve learned how to see the world through someone else’s perspective,” she explains. “I see the world through my lens of gender, race, and sexual orientation, and I know that others do that too.”

O’Neale has never denied her sexual orientation, though she admits it has cost her some jobs and consulting contracts. In 2000, prior to her position with Campbell Soup, O’Neale was conducting a cultural assessment of the employees of an outside company to develop their training and diversity initiative. The CEO was not aware of her sexual orientation. “I told him some of your lesbian and gay employees are concerned that it is not comfortable for them to come out,” she recalls. “He said, ‘It’s not, and I’m going to ask HR for those names because I’m going to fire them.’ I knew as a lesbian that I couldn’t work under those circumstances.” O’Neale willingly walked away from the contract.

It seems, however, that corporate behavior and response toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)professionals is changing. According to the report Corporate Equality Index, published annually by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s LGBT civil rights organization, 305 out of 590 of the nation’s top 1,000 companies, received a 100% ranking for having an inclusive work environment for LGBT employees, including General Motors Corp., AT&T Inc., IBM Corp., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., and Ford Motor Co. (all of which can be found on our 40 Best Companies for Diversity list, July 2009). Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Cardinal Health are also included on the list, which was first published in 2002, when only 13 companies received a 100% ranking.

Here are some additional findings:

99% of CEI-rated employers provide employment protections based on sexual orientation.

72% provide employment protections based on gender identity or expression; this figure has increased from 5% in 2002.

94% provide domestic partner coverage. Companies that offer domestic partner benefits have found the total financial impact is less than 1%.

83% report some form of external engagement with the LGBT community, whether through marketing, advertising, or philanthropic contributions.

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