Seeing the value of a diverse workforce, many firms are opening up their benefits packages to same-sex domestic partners in an effort to improve employee retention and recruitment.
The federal government prohibits employee discrimination on the basis of a number of factors, including race, sex, religion, and marital status, but not sexual orientation. Nonetheless, companies have the opportunity to create stricter discrimination standards than the law demands, and many do.
An increasing number of firms also offer the same benefits to partners of employees in committed same-sex relationships that they provide to married, heterosexual couples. It's just one more way to stay competitive when it comes to employee retention and recruitment, as well as providing a welcoming culture.
According to the gay rights organization Human Rights Campaign (HRC), at least 8,273 US companies offer fringe benefits to the partners of employees in a committed same-sex relationship.
Edelman and Massachusetts-based SparkSource are among the PR firms that offer some form of domestic partner benefits to same-sex employees. While both agencies began offering these benefits after employees asked management for them, Sean Cahill, director of policy for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, says management is now increasingly pushing their adoption.
"Traditionally it has come from employees, but as [the benefits] are becoming more widespread, more people in management are seeing the value of a diverse workforce," Cahill says, adding that the benefits make good business sense.
"Treating all staff equally is important to stay competitive," Cahill says.
Edelman has been offering medical, dental, and vision coverage for about seven years to partners of employees in committed same-sex relationships.
Laura Smith, US HR director, said the firm adopted the policy after three staffers came to the HR department.
Smith told them to write up a memo detailing all the logical arguments for the benefits change. She, in turn, submitted the memo to the global head of HR, the CEO, and the US president.
"We have a number of gay employees, and we wanted to be on the forefront of this," Smith said. "It wasn't a hard sell at all. The HR department has received a lot of kudos for it."
Smith says that in addition to boosting morale among current staffers, the benefits signify to new employees that they're entering a welcoming culture.
The HRC suggests employees draft a proposal like the one Edelman employees wrote. It should include, according to the HRC, a proposed definition of a domestic partner, analysis of the projected costs to employees and the employer, and a benefit implementation plan that should include issues of confidentiality, fraud, and tax.
Driving home the point of staying competitive in a diverse economy, the HRC advises staffers to identify competitors that offer same-sex partner benefits when appealing to managers.
Edelman requires that individuals vying for the coverage provide some evidence that they live together, but does not require a minimum length of co-habitation. Edelman, however, does not offer benefits to domestic partners of the opposite gender.
SparkSource offers the policy to both heterosexual and homosexual partners who have been living together for at least six months. Like Edelman, SparkSource requires that participating members bring in some form of evidence, such as a lease or utility bill.
Cahill says that different organizations will choose different protocol for determining domestic partnerships. He adds that domestic-partnership benefits to both same-sex and heterosexual staffers are becoming more popular, as some states and groups have challenged the legality of only offering to same-sex employees.
"This is just about treating people fairly," says Eric Davies, principal at SparkSource. The excitement of its adoption, Davies says, is a "function of who already works here."
After deciding to implement the policy, firm principals merely sat down to decide what was fair. But Davies advises agencies now considering such implementation to discuss policies with third-party nonprofits or other companies that have successfully done so.
For example, Davies says agencies that are concerned about the economic costs of offering more benefits should know that expenditure is more than offset by the loyalty the policy earns.
Implementing domestic partner benefits
- Employer should create a welcoming environment for such requests
- Employee should write a detailed proposal, including an analysis of potential costs and benefits
- Employer needs to determine whether partnership benefits will be extended to heterosexual domestic partnership
- Committee should determine strict protocol for what relationships qualify