‘The world has changed — for the better for us’ How CT companies support LGBTQ professionals

Photo of Paul Schott

NORWALK — In 1995, Michelle Waites was hired as a patent attorney at workplace-technology provider Xerox Holdings after graduating from law school at the University of California-Berkeley. Her discovery that Xerox had an employee resource group called GALAXe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer professionals figured prominently in her decision to join the company.

Today, Waites ranks as one of the Norwalk headquartered Fortune 500 company’s longest-serving executives, now holding the titles of vice president, legal counsel and corporate secretary for CareAR, the software startup launched last year by Xerox. At the same time, she serves as co-president of GALAXe.

Each June, Waites and her colleagues in the approximately 600-member GALAXe organize programs to celebrate Pride Month. Beyond this month’s events, networks such as GALAXe play a leading year-round role in fostering more equal and inclusive workplaces for LGBTQ professionals across corporate America — advocacy that has carried on amid the rise of remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The world has changed — and fortunately it’s changed for the better for us. LGBTQ people aren’t ostracized in the way we were before,” Waites said in an interview. “Members who come into GALAXe now really do expect to be treated fairly. Now, people don’t feel like they have to join GALAXe to be activists, whereas earlier on I think that was a bigger part of it…. Xerox is very responsive, so you don’t have to fight for much.”

Widespread support for LGBTQ professionals

Pride Month events have been fixtures on corporate calendars for years.

The pandemic-sparked upheaval of the past two years has moved much of that programming online, with many of those engagements featuring guest speakers discussing key issues facing the LGBTQ community. But executives said the digital format has not diminished Pride Month’s significance.

“During Pride month, Xerox encourages all of our employees to learn about Pride, as well as how to get involved with various events GALAXe hosts. We also change our logos internally and externally to show our support for the LGBTQ+ community,” Suzan Morno-Wade, Xerox’s chief human resources officer, said in a statement. “Diversity, inclusion and belonging is an essential part of the Xerox culture. We have a team that works tirelessly day in and day out to create a workplace that allows all of our employees to thrive and to bring their true, whole selves to their work.”

For 20 consecutive years, Xerox has earned a 100 percent score in the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index. The CEI focuses on four areas: non-discrimination policies across businesses; equitable benefits for LGBTQ workers and their families; support of an “inclusive culture;” and corporate social responsibility.

“We wanted to maintain our 100 percent score,” Waites said. “It’s great to be honored, and it’s also a good way for companies to benchmark against each other — to see what everybody else is doing for LGBTQ people.”

In addition to Xerox, 14 other Connecticut-based companies also earned 100 scores in the 2022 Corporate Equality Index: AQR Capital Management, BlueTriton Brands, Boehringer Ingelheim USA, Bridgewater Associates, Cigna, Diageo North America, FactSet, Gartner, The Hartford, Otis Worldwide, Pitney Bowes, Stanley Black & Decker, Synchrony and Thomson Reuters.

This year, a record 842 businesses, employing a total of more than 14 million workers, earned 100 scores and the designation of being a “Best Place to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality”— up from 13 in the CEI’s first edition 20 years ago.

Companies with strong track records in supporting LGBTQ professionals are often based in cities with local governments with similar values. Last year, Norwalk and Stamford were among the cities that earned 100 percent scores on HRC’s Municipal Equality Index scorecard.

“Xerox’s 100 percent score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index makes me proud to have them here in Norwalk,” Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling said in a statement. “We know that the LGBTQ+ community’s presence here in Norwalk brings an unparalleled strength that directly contributes to what makes our city so special. We hope that more companies that fully embrace and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community continue to come to Norwalk.”

But not all large companies scored highly on this year’s CEI. Among the Fortune 500 firms headquartered in Connecticut, Amphenol, Emcor Group and Frontier Communications received unofficial scores of 20 and W.R. Berkley was given an unofficial score of 10 because the HRC Foundation said that they were among the companies that “have not responded to repeated invitations to the CEI survey. These ratings are based on publicly available information as well as information submitted to HRC from unofficial LGBTQ employee groups or individual employees.”

When this year’s index was released, Frontier officials said the company received an unofficial score because the HRC Foundation had been contacting an employee who no longer works at the company. They said the company had reached out to HRC to update its score.

Messages left this week for Amphenol, Emcor and W.R. Berkley were not returned.

Longstanding work

Groups such as GALAXe have played a vital role in efforts to secure greater rights and create more inclusive workplaces for LGBTQ professionals. In response to a GALAXe recommendation, Xerox last year rolled out a “self-identification” option in its systems in the U.S., Canada and United Kingdom that allows employees and external candidates to disclose information including gender identity and sexual orientation in their personal profiles.

“We want to ensure that everyone can bring their whole self to work and be comfortable doing so, which is an important step in our journey to becoming a more diverse and inclusive workplace,” Morno-Wade said. “We also encourage all employees to share their preferred pronouns in their email signature, which is a concrete, impactful way to show advocacy for LGBTQ+ individuals.”

Among earlier initiatives, Waites said that she was proud of Xerox becoming in the late 1990s one of the first companies to offer domestic-partner benefits to same-sex partners of employees.

“It wasn’t a common thing to have back then,” said Waites, who lives with her wife in Westchester County, N.Y.

Looking ahead, HR experts see the rise of remote working since the beginning of the pandemic as a foundation for companies to recruit more LGBTQ employees and professionals from other underrepresented groups because they can consider candidates beyond the areas within a daily commute of their offices.

“That’s created a huge opportunity for companies that in the past struggled on diversity for the simple fact that they were locked in on local candidate pools,” said David Lewis, founder and CEO of the Norwalk-based HR services firm Operations Inc. “Employers used to say that local candidate pools had nothing to offer in terms of a good, solid and diverse population from which to hire. Now that excuse is out the window because you can hire a diverse population from anywhere in the U.S.”

Waites said that GALAXe welcomes newcomers, regardless of whether they are members of the LGBTQ community or straight allies.

“We get a lot more allies joining now,” Waites said. “Every fight for equality gets stronger when people outside the marginalized group join them in the fight and demand change.”

pschott@stamfordadvocate.com; twitter: @paulschott