Employment Non-Discrimination protest in May, 2010. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)
Politicians are rarely catalysts for social change, serving instead as reflectors of shifts in public attitudes. That is the case with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
It is also the reason legislative passage would be largely symbolic and of limited practical value. In fact, the impotence of the effort is one reason it will at least – and again – partially advance through Congress. If seeking mostly meaningless grand gestures, this one is for you.
This actuality is far more fundamental than complaints regarding exemptions for the military and companies with fewer than 15 employees, as well as broad waivers for religious institutions and church corporations – including internal self-designation of secular jobs as exempt. It’s bigger than the fact that the legislation sensibly and explicitly prohibits preferential treatment, the institution of employment quotas and does not permit lawsuits claiming that facially neutral employment practices have an adverse, or disparate, impact in application or effect.
The popular perception is that ENDA is a magic solution to job-related discrimination. The reality is that its impact is negated by the vagaries of employment management and overshadowed by the widespread adoption of equality-embracing business practices. Approved this time or not, following two decades of defeats, doesn’t much matter other than as political theater.
Business concern that continued expansion of protected classes in private sector employment administration will result in a wave of hoop-jumping regulations and a bevy of frivolous lawsuits has significantly diminished over time. Not because those worries are unwarranted or indicative of animus toward gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender workers. Rather, the now accumulated evidence is that it doesn’t much happen.
Andrew Sullivan noted this on the eve of Monday’s Senate cloture tally allowing a vote on the bill in the upper chamber this week. He reported that passage of the federal hate crimes law in 2009 has yielded exactly two successful anti-gay bias prosecutions. Statistics from the numerous municipalities and 21 states plus the District with sexual orientation employment protection laws – including 17 states and the District that include transgender workers – indicate there are few resulting lawsuits. The Government Accounting Office recently concurred.
For whatever reasons, these laws have produced scarce legal action.
Businesses understand the advantage in attracting and retaining talent best suited to build success. Fully 97 percent of Fortune 500 companies have instituted policies prohibiting anti-gay discrimination, with nearly 60 percent including gender identity. This reflects changing societal mores, more than the command of legislators. Fully four-in-five or more Americans believe that workplace discrimination is wrongheaded.
Equal treatment is now the widely implemented enterprise norm. Whether this development has been in some limited instances a result of reluctant acceptance is irrelevant, only underscoring the inability of government to ensure it in the nuanced arena of employment protocols.
Will there be more paperwork to complete and required cover-your-behind steps in hiring or firing? Will there be new human resource litigation-inoculation training to undergo? Will costly unfounded retaliatory claims by falsely aggrieved employees and applicants be instigated against employers honestly exercising the right to make employment decisions absent prejudice or violation of the law? Will pink-slip-chasing attorneys be beneficiaries? Yes, of course.
Are there a diminishing number of outlier employers who discriminate, including those doing so subtly and cleverly and escaping detection? Are there those who oppose LGBT employment protections because they dislike or even hate us? Who think our “behavior” immoral while masking bigotry utilizing a religious shield? Yep, there are.
However, statements by advocates that “every night, millions of LGBT workers go to sleep not knowing if they’ll have a job the next day” are silly and overblown. Hyperbolic claims diminish the situation some face and suggest a false remedy.
Changing attitudes and behavior through coercion, whether concerning big things or small matters and no matter how soothing a salve to the pain of history, is the easy and empty act. We need to remember that.