March 2, 2015

Out & Equal: Gays, lesbians join CT businesses for their LGBT inclusion

PHOTO | Pablo Robles
PHOTO | Pablo Robles
Robert Udell moved from his native Pennsylvania, a state with only mid-level LGBT inlcusion, according to the Movement Advancement Project, to Connecticut, a high-level LGBT state.
PHOTO | Pablo Robles
(Top) Grace Figueredo says Aetna’s LGBT inclusion helps the insurer attract better employees and reach more market segments. (Above) Lori Pelletier, the first lesbian leader of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said unions are becoming more inclusive by having LGBT caucuses.

When Pennsylvania native Robert Udell graduated from Penn State in 2005 and was looking for a place to work, he ranked potential employers on two criteria.

• Ability to apply his information-technology education and rise in the management ranks.

• Inclusion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.

"Aetna was at the top of that short list," Udell said.

Udell, who is gay, moved from Pennsylvania to Connecticut nine years ago and has spent his entire professional career working at Aetna and in Hartford. He has risen up the ranks of the insurer to be a program manager in its Innovation, Technology, and Service Operations department. He's also an advisor and past chairman of the company's LGBT employee resource group.

In a country where only 18 states provide non-discrimination protections for LGBT employees and 23 states still don't allow gay marriage, Connecticut's progressive stance on LGBT rights (including being the third state ever to allow same-sex unions in 2008 and adopting a slew of workplace protections) has made some Nutmeg State employers a destination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender talent.

"Connecticut has got a great reputation when it comes to inclusion of the LGBT community," said Sam McClure, vice president of affiliate relations for the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. "Imagine if you were a couple preparing to start a family, it would make sense to move to a place where you have as many protections as possible."

Connecticut is home to 95,091 LGBT people, representing 3.4 percent of the state's adult population, according to Colorado-based LGBT advocacy group Movement Advancement Project (MAP).

The state also has 111 businesses in its Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. The Human Rights Campaign, which conducts an annual study of major companies' LGBT inclusion, gave Connecticut companies an average score of 91 out of 100 in its Corporate Equality Index.

Nutmeg State businesses ranked highly for offering non-discrimination policies, equal benefits for all employees plus specialty benefits such as gender reassignment, and supplier diversity programs. Meantime, state laws that prohibit LGBT people from being bullied at school and discriminated against for housing, health care, and adoption adds to Connecticut's attraction.

Being inclusive of the LGBT community offers three distinct business advantages, according to Susan Johnson, vice president of diversity and inclusion at The Hartford Financial Services Group.

First, potential LGBT workers are attracted to the company — or at least not precluded against it — opening up the talent pool for new hires.

Second, employees feel more comfortable being themselves at work, leading to better production and making them more innovative when the company wants to offer new products or expand to new markets.

Third, the company can more easily relate to potential suppliers and customers, giving it a leg up on competitors in the market.

"It is absolutely part of our strategy," Johnson said.

The Hartford, whose LGBT employee resource group is celebrating its 20th anniversary, is rolling out its Ally program this year where workers of all sexual orientations are encouraged to be leaders in their departments in creating an inclusive work environment. So far, 600 employees have signed on.

The Ally program focuses on employee behaviors and how workers can act, or not act, so that all their colleagues feel comfortable and can maximize their production at work, said Cameron Comstock, co-chair of The Hartford's LGBT employee resource group.

"It allows us to be a stronger, more effective company," said Comstock, who is gay. "I have never had a concern about being myself at work, and that allows me to focus on my work … I enjoy that feeling and bring it with me every day."

Inclusive policies

Despite having higher average incomes, LGBT people are at greater risk of poverty than the average person because a lack of non-discrimination policies in many states can lead to difficulties finding employment, housing, health care, family benefits, and equal education, especially if same-sex couples have children, are ethnic or racial minorities, or are older adults, according to a September study from MAP.

For example, 21 percent of the LGBT population earns less than $12,000 annually in income, compared to 17 percent for the non-LGBT population, according to the MAP study. The situation is even worse for transgender people as non-discrimination laws don't always cover gender identification: 15 percent of transgender people earn less than $10,000 annually, compared to 4 percent of the general population.

By allowing gay marriage, having non-discrimination laws that cover all sexual orientations and identifications, and encouraging employers to create receptive work environments, Connecticut has an economic competitive advantage by not restricting who can live and work in the state, said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

"You don't want to lose out on bringing innovators to your state just because you are pigheaded," Malloy said. "I don't know why any gay people live in Alabama."

As a company that stresses inclusion and has a supplier diversity program that seeks LGBT-identified businesses, Aetna is better able to communicate with the LGBT market and respond to its needs, said Grace Figueredo, head of diversity and inclusion for the Hartford health insurer. That boosts the bottom line, Figueredo said, particularly since gay and lesbian couples' buying power, $130,000 and $96,000 respectively, is higher than the U.S. average ($50,000).

"People in the LGBT community will consider how inclusive companies are, even when less-friendly companies offer better deals," Figueredo said. "That is a competitive advantage."

Friendly reception

When Jessica Grossarth started working as a summer associate in 2001 for Hartford law firm Pullman & Comley, she had not yet come out as a lesbian even though she was in a same-sex relationship at the time. However, because Pullman's staff created such an open work environment, she felt comfortable coming out both at work and to her parents that year.

"[Pullman] made me feel so comfortable that I felt non-different for the first time in my life," Grossarth said. "It was more than a seamless transition."

That inclusion was just as important to Grossarth in choosing Pullman as her employer after graduation as was the fact that the firm had two partners who could mentor her in setting up a bankruptcy law practice. She has worked for the firm for 14 years.

While serving as chairwoman of Pullman's diversity committee, Grossarth in 2013 set up the LGBT Section of the Connecticut Bar Association, providing a forum for LGBT lawyers and a group to monitor laws important to the LGBT community.

"The CBA has been extremely supportive … which is something since it has been an organization long dominated by white males," Grossarth said.

While the rest of the nation appears to be catching up to Connecticut in terms of LGBT inclusion — a same-sex marriage ruling is expected in June from the U.S. Supreme Court that could make it legal in four more states — the fact that Connecticut was ahead of the curve gives the state extra advantages, said Lori Pelletier, the executive-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

Pelletier, who is the first lesbian to lead a Connecticut labor union, said the LGBT community is more established and open in the state. Not having government leaders who decry LGBT rights makes people more comfortable living and working here.

"People that have been here feel safer here than if they travel for business," Pelletier said. "We have come a long way, and hopefully the rest of the nation will come along, too."

In his nine years at Aetna, Udell — who is also Connecticut co-chair of workplace advocacy group Out & Equal and a board member of the Connecticut Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce — has what he refers to as his day job and his gay job.

His day job is contributing fully to Aetna's Innovation, Technology, and Service Operations department. His gay job is voicing his perspective to company leaders and executives, so they can have a better understanding of how to include LGBT employees and attract LGBT customers.

Udell's influence has grown to the point where executives expect to hear his views when they are meeting with large groups of employees. He is also on a first-name basis with Aetna President & CEO Mark Bertolini, who in 2009 was elected the first straight board member of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

"It is not just about me and raising my hand, but it is all the other employees seeing [me] raise [my] hand and being called on by name," Udell said.

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