On Monday Alabama became the 37th state in which same-sex marriage is possible.
While that's great news for same-sex couples seeking equality under the law for their relationships, it's still legal to fire LGBT employees in 30 states for their sexual orientation or gender identity, including Alabama.
Business owners frequently bemoan the number of regulations they must deal with, such as environmental rules and minimum wage laws. And while it's hard to doubt that today's regulatory burden on businesses is onerous, in some cases these directives are the only way to create change in work places that might otherwise be unfair to workers. That fact was highlighted just a few days ago, when, after a two-decade fight, ExxonMobil finally added LGBT employees to its roster of employee groups protected by its non-discrimination policies.
Exxon was the last Fortune 500 company to include LGBT workers in its anti-discrimination policies, and some observers said the company changed its stance only as a result of an executive order last year that prohibits federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees. Exxon, which is one of the biggest federal contractors, is also the subject of a hiring discrimination lawsuit involving LGBT employees in Illinois.
"The executive order brought Exxon to the table and their policies in line with where they should be, and out of the dark ages," says Justin Nelson, co-founder and president of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
For its part, Exxon says it's always adhered to federal standards of non-discrimination. In an email, a company spokesman wrote:
ExxonMobil's U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity and Harassment in the Workplace policies have been updated to include sexual orientation and gender identity, which is consistent with ExxonMobil's long-standing practice of listing enumerated protected classes as defined by federal law.
But groups such as Human Rights Campaign claim that Exxon is whitewashing its record, and like Nelson it asserts Exxon decided to add LGBT workers to its non-discrimination policies only after President Obama's executive order. Exxon provides oil and gas to federal departments including the Department of Defense. HRC notes that Exxon shareholders voted on 17 separate occasions to kill protections for LGBT employees after its merger with Mobil in 1999.
At the time, Mobil had included LGBT employees in its non-discrimination policy, but Exxon rolled back those protections following the merger.
To be sure, the company has made progress toward a more equitable workplace in recent years. In 2013, in states where it was legal for such employees to marry, it began offering LGBT employees benefits equivalent to those provided to employees in opposite-sex marriages, such as health insurance for spouses and family leave.
And despite its inclusion among states where same-sex marriage has been upheld by a federal court, Alabama is one of the states where employers can fire LGBT workers. Apple chief executive Tim Cook, who was born in Mobile, made note of its slow progress toward equal rights in a speech when he was inducted into that state's hall of fame last fall. He has also donated to gay rights campaigns there. Cook came out in October and is the only openly gay chief executive of a Fortune 500 company.
"Under the law, citizens of Alabama can still be fired based on their sexual orientation," Cook said during the ceremony in October. "We can't change the past, but we can learn from it and we can create a different future."
Hopefully Exxon is doing more than paying lip service to the executive order, notes Nelson. "We have to hold their feet to the fire and make sure they continue to be inclusive in their supply chain and outreach and employment practices," Nelson adds.