Equal Employment Opportunities

April 1, 2008

In the age of the Internet, when personal information is just a few mouse clicks away, many students worry whether coming out will hurt them as they seek to enter the working world.

In fact, certain sectors of corporate America—including the consulting, investment-banking, and technology fields popular among this generation of Duke grads—have become increasingly friendly to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals in recent years. And several Duke alumni have played leading roles in helping these companies reach out to LGBT employees and customers alike.

Since 2002, the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent LGBT advocacy organization, has rated companies on their friendliness to LGBT employees. A record 195 companies, including Fortune 500 companies such as General Motors Corporation and Hewlett-Packard, received perfect scores in its 2008 Corporate Equality Index (CEI).

This past fall, Wachovia, a Charlotte-based bank that achieved a perfect score on the CEI, hosted a recruiting event on Duke's campus geared specifically toward LGBT students, one of several such events that it plans to conduct at top universities around the country. The events, led by recent graduates who now work for the company, are an outgrowth of the company's LGBT employee group, which also holds social events and educates managers on LGBT issues.

"This all starts because there is an extremely competitive recruiting environment out there right now," says Jay Everette, corporate communications director for Wachovia. "It's hard to acquire top talent, so it's really a business imperative for Wachovia to do this kind of work."

At Yahoo! Inc., Brady Wood '98 was instrumental in founding an employee group similar to Wachovia's called Yahoo Pride, which has grown to more than 150 members. He also founded an initiative aimed at marketing products and promotions such as online social networks to the LGBT community. Wood's model has since been copied by other "cultural interest groups" at the company, and, last year, he was awarded the company's "Yahoo Superstar" award in recognition of his efforts.

Financial adviser Todd Sears '98 has, likewise, found a competitive advantage in marketing to LGBT clients. Sears joined Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc., in 2001 and, soon after, convinced his bosses to run a pilot program catering to the private-wealth management needs of LGBT clients. The program was such a success that it was made national in scope after one year. The company now has 400 financial advisers around the country focusing on the LGBT community. "On a federal level," says Sears, vice president and diversity manager for the company's northeast division, "there are 1,049 rights not afforded to [same-sex] domestic partners because they are not legally married. That has a dramatic impact on estate planning and income planning."

He has also encouraged the company to form partnerships with national LGBT organizations. The company, he says, has "always looked at it from a business-development perspective, with social consciousness as the baseline. It's obviously the right thing to do, but how great is it that it's also the right business thing to do."

The attempts these companies are making to reach out to LGBT customers and employees represent a gradual shift. Tom Clark '69, who is gay, went to work at U.S. Trust Company N.A., a private wealth-management firm, in 1978—a time when "people were not openly gay in the financial community," he says. His big "corporate coming-out moment" came in 1990, when a company secretary pointedly invited him to bring "a guest" to the office Christmas party. His partner, John M. Davis, was seated, ceremoniously, at the CEO's wife's table.

Before retiring in 2006, Clark advanced to division president and managing director, but, he says, even in the "polite" atmosphere of U.S. Trust, his sexuality undoubtedly hindered his advancement, if indirectly. "It's not that you get fired. It's that when people are putting together 'the team' for anything, they naturally pull people in who they not only admire and think are contributors, but people who they have things in common with."

As an employee, Clark never benefited from the kinds of outreach programs that have been created at Wachovia, Yahoo, and Merrill Lynch. But this year, after Davis lost his health insurance, Clark contacted Bank of America, which had acquired U.S. Trust. The company agreed to extend Clark's coverage to Davis retroactively.