In contrast to its history of sex discrimination, Wal-Mart Stores, the nation’s largest private employer, last week expanded its anti-discrimination policies to protect the rights of gay and lesbian workers. Among the 10 largest Fortune 500 companies, Wal-Mart is the ninth to adopt a policy-to be covered in the retailer’s diversity-awareness training programs for all employees-that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, according to the Associated Press. Changes in the language and content of the employee handbook to promote equal treatment of and respect for workers of all sexual orientations are effective immediately, according to Reuters.
Mona Williams, Wal-Mart’s vice president for communications, told the New York Times, the decision-made public by the Pride Foundation, a Seattle-based gay rights organization that had lobbied Wal-Mart for gay workers’ protection for two years-was made after a letter from gay employees to senior management officials demanded the company change its policy.
Many gay rights groups hail Wal-Mart’s move as a step forward in the gay rights movement, which has picked up momentum after the Supreme Court struck down Texas anti-sodomy laws two weeks ago, according to the Associated Press. Pride Foundation board representative Zack Wright told the Associated Press that the decision is especially significant because of Wal-Mart’s size and presence in rural areas. Gay rights advocates expect that other corporations and possibly state governments will soon follow suit, according to the Times.
Steven Sprenger, a partner with a Washington D.C. law firm that specializes in sexual discrimination, told Reuters that while the policy is a good start, enforcement is critical. Wal-Mart, the most sued-company in the United States, according to the National Organization for Women, continues to face many gender discrimination lawsuits, despite the presence of a policy that prohibits gender discrimination. The pending California case Dukes v. Wal-Mart, set for class certification on July 25, alleges systematic sex discrimination in unequal pay, promotion, and training. If granted class-action status, this case against Wal-Mart could be the largest discrimination suit in history, according to Fortune.
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