Point of View

Betting on the business of equality in NC

February 2, 2014 

When Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina recently revealed it would reverse course and immediately begin offering family coverage to the state’s same-sex married couples, it also effectively communicated an important, message that many companies all over North Carolina have realized:

Equality is good for business.

In a statement announcing the change, Blue Cross CEO Brad Wilson was not only quick to apologize for his company’s failure to thoughtfully consider its prior position of denying and, in some cases, canceling coverage to same-sex couples and domestic partners, but also hinted at the policy’s detrimental impact of forcing married, gay and lesbian couples in North Carolina to once again accept a dual reality: equality at the federal level, but inequality at the state level.

A large majority of Fortune 500 Companies have already realized that equality is easy and efficient and that discrimination is hard and complicated and comes at a cost.

Why else would every single company on Fortune magazine’s list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” protect gay employees from discrimination, with more than half of these companies also covering transgender workers?

Why would 89 percent of Fortune 500 companies do the same? That includes the five largest North Carolina-based public companies: Bank of America, Lowe’s, Duke Energy, BB&T and Reynolds American.

Why would the vast majority of the state’s small-business owners and entrepreneurs (64 percent) oppose discrimination against LGBT workers?

Businesses that have chosen to publicly support equality, as Blue Cross did, not only show an increased commitment to their current employees and subscribers, but they are also better able to appeal to a whole new pool of talented job seekers and customers – who are, more and more, making decisions based on conscience.

But Blue Cross’ public display isn’t just a sign of the times. It’s a mantle as old as North Carolina’s business acumen itself.

After all, when Charlotte-based Nations Bank merged with Bank of America in 1998, one of the pivotal questions in corporate headquarters was whether the new financial entity would continue to offer same-sex domestic partner benefits established by the original Bank of America.

In a bold move, before the merger was even official, North Carolina business legend and then CEO Hugh C. McColl stepped up and formally announced that the North Carolina-based Bank of America would begin to offer such benefits as a means to protect employees and satisfy shareholders.

It is clear that the Bank of America management believed that it was important to have such protections in place for the benefit of the growing corporation. They surely knew it would attract the talented and diverse work force necessary to compete in a global market.

Now, almost two decades later, over 50 major private companies in North Carolina offer same-sex domestic partner benefits, including Bank of America, now the fifth-largest Fortune 500 Corporation in America.

Basic fairness can mean big business. Corporations, small businesses and entrepreneurs are leading where our state legislature is not.

That’s precisely why Equality NC, as North Carolina’s leader in LGBT legislative and grassroots advocacy, will now be partnering with business leaders to launch the Equality NC Business Equality Council. Launching this year, our organization will begin the important work of convening visible North Carolina business leaders who support LGBT equality and champion issues ranging from employment protections to equal access to health care – all as part of an unprecedented business coalition in the Tar Heel State.

In the process, we’ll be putting our money where our mouth is, openly supporting the business entities that support us and betting on a coalition that adds business support to already-thriving, pro-equality grassroots networks throughout the state.

And so in 2014 and beyond the business community will partner with community leaders and advocates to send a message even if the legislature will not: North Carolina is open for business.

Chris Sgro is executive director of Equality NC, North Carolina’s leading advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender North Carolinians.

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