I still vividly remember the day when the New York State Legislature finally passed the Marriage Equality Act, which effectively overturned the draconian Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA); it was for me, and so many people I love, one of those seminal moments where it felt like the walls of injustice were beginning to crack.
When Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law the same day, it was cause for celebration. Which, coming a mere matter of days before the NYC Pride Parade, was quite impeccable in terms of timing.
I was lucky enough to catch a last minute flight into the city to take part in what felt like history in the making – and there are those moments that you just don’t want to miss. There we were, just a few blocks and a few decades removed from the Stonewall Riots, and I realized that what I was watching unfold was much bigger than a pride parade.
I am in no way ashamed to admit in the midst of the sequined tiger costumes, banana hammocks and assless chaps surrounding me, I actually shed a tear – and it wasn’t because of the poor outfit choices or the blatant disregard for manscaping for many of those decked out in man thongs. I could see the forest through the trees, pun partially intended – and I was swept with this overwhelming realization that for once, the universe was smiling on the LGBT community. Justice for all had prevailed for a group long marginalized by mainstream society, and for the first time, that marriage equality would become a reality across the country seemed at the time like an imminent inevitability.
And if that’s not worth shedding a tear over, I really don’t know what is.
A Peculiar Institution
I know that to many of you who have long taken access to this institution for granted, marriage seems like a silly thing. It’s just a piece of paper, really – but denying that document to LGBT families around the world has created a litany of challenges. The inability to share custody of a child; not being able to participate in medical decisions or even enter the hospital room of a partner; lack of access to insurance benefits, to name a few of the most egregious and tragic examples of institutional oversight.
But now, some corner of my universe had relief from the stress of fighting these injustices and remaining perpetually hidden in the shadows of society – and there is no understating the significance of having these burdens, great and small, finally lifted from your shoulders after living under such a weight for such a long time.
Fast forward four years, and finally, the wait for federal recognition was over – the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, lived up to its name in passing this landmark legislation. While I’m still waiting for the guy who threatened to set himself on fire if gay marriage was legalized to actually go through with his promised self-immolation, I’m having another one of those moments where I’m recognizing that finally, the world has shifted from antipathy to acceptance of the LGBT community – my community.
I don’t think many straight people fully comprehend exactly why this decision is such a big deal – and recognize all the things that come with that recognition. Think about your awful mother-in-law, you know, the one who mean mugs you every time you see her, being able to prohibit you from attending the funeral of the loved one you just lost hours before. That evil bitch could get away with that, you know, even if you were legally married in another state. That is, until last week.
Or, the amount of paperwork I’ve seen couples draw up – along with the associated inordinate legal fees – simply trying to preempt these and a million other contingency plans because, well, the law was not on their side, at least not yet. Hell, I think about people going through the acrimony of a divorce – as painful for LGBT couples as straight ones – in a state that doesn’t see them as married in the first place. These are not religious issues, these are not political issues; these are Civil Rights issues, and finally, those rights have been issued.
For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and all that jazz.
The Struggle Isn’t Over.
It’s easy to forget about the manifold challenges we still face even in the face of positive change, inevitably, and be so overcome with excitement that we forget that the struggles our community continues to face irrespective of legally recognized marriages.
I also understand that the majority of the population – which is to say, all of you old fashioned heterosexuals out there – don’t really think the way that I do, because, well, who you sleep with is pretty passe when it comes to who you are as a person. Sure, you maybe marched in a parade or changed your profile picture on Facebook like some 24 million other people – which is awesome.
Rainbow it up, y’all – I think unilaterally, the collective LGBT community appreciates your very public displays of support, which has been, for the last week or so, both unprecedented and awesome.
But in forgetting the challenges that inevitably come with change, we’re forgetting what comes next: moving from legislation to implementation and enforcement of the newest law of the land. And, believe it or not, one of the biggest of these changes will actually start, inevitably, with your HR department.
Who, as you’re probably aware, aren’t really used to being on the cutting edge of breaking down barriers and changing up the status quo. But that, it just so happens, is where the responsibilities for corporate compliance clearly land. Hell, it’s half of HR’s job.
What Gay Marriage Means for HR and Recruiting.
I can’t take credit, admittedly, for the inspiration behind this post, because in the midst of all the hullabaloo,my favorite reformed HR renegade, the inimitable Robin Schooling, was the first to post the million dollar question:
“I wonder when HR will start whining about all the work they have to do.”
Bitching, of course, is one core competency most practitioners have pretty much nailed by now, and I’m just waiting to bust out the cheese for the inevitable whine party that’s on the horizon.
Now, I’m going to guess that the complaints, the resistance to change and reticence to work, aren’t necessarily going to happen today, or tomorrow, or maybe not even for a couple of months. But be warned, there’s plenty of work ahead for HR in light of this legislation – and most of it will come, inevitably, in the form of policy rewrites.
If you’ve ever had to suffer through this exercise, you already know that policy writing is a bitch – it’s boring, draining, monotonous and it detracts from the stuff that really impacts business strategy and bottom line, like, I don’t know, recruiting and retaining your employees. Or performance reviews, or employee relations, or whatever it is they’re handing out SHRM certification credits for these days.
But be warned: if your state hasn’t already recognized gay marriage, or you haven’t been part of an organization progressive enough to have independently incorporated this into your personnel policies, you’re looking at a pile of paperwork, ranging from benefits administration to payroll deductions and all that really sexy stuff that makes HR, well, HR.
Gay Marriage & HR Policy: 5 Things Every Practitioner Needs To Review
I know my area of expertise lies in marketing, not the intricacies of HR compliance or employment law, but I am speaking not as an expert, but from having had the first hand experience of being a gay person who’s gotten burned by policies in the past.
Yeah, I know there’s a flaming joke in there, but I digress.
As an openly gay employee, I’ve always had to play the “what if” game every single time I’ve applied for a job – as if that weren’t stressful and complicated enough already.
What if they don’t offer same sex partner benefits? What if homophobia is an underlying part of their company culture? What if my new manager will subtly shun me because of their personal or political beliefs?
That’s the kind of shit that doesn’t come up in Glassdoor reviews, employer branding collateral or mission, vision and value statements. So, you just kind of had to guess – and hope it all works out. And, for me at least, that hasn’t always been the case.
With that in mind, here are 5 things every HR practitioner should consider when considering the implications of implementing marriage equality into their employee policies.
1. Retirement and Reproductive Benefits:
Review your benefits to ensure that when defining relationships, your definitions defy gender specificity. Be sure to review any policies pertaining to family planning – I know for a fact that there are some global consulting firms (think: Big 4) who offer financial assistance for artificial insemination and other fertility treatments to straight employees – but now, such firms must broaden their definition to include gay couples, too.
I’m not naming names, but I can tell you that these firms, with their unlimited resources and core business offering advisory services, are already working on rolling out new benefits internally as well as for their consulting clients.
2. 401(k) and Pension Distribution: End of life benefits are one area that have seen something of a spotlight recently, thanks in large part to Edith Windsor’s Supreme Court case (United States v Windsor), which held that the Defense of Marriage Act’s interpretation of marriage as being between a man and a woman violated the Due Process Clause of the 5th Amendment. Because of the fact that gay couples were not previously recognized as married, they were also denied the same end of life benefits of straight couples. Now that marriage is fully recognized, so too must these imperative end of life policies.
3. Vocabulary: OK, finally – gay marriage is now just ‘marriage’ – so drop the modifier, and make sure that this is similarly reflected in policy definitions of “spouse” and “marriage” in any related documentation, such as an employee handbook, where these terms might arise.
4. Healthcare Benefits: Every organization will now have to give their employees the ability to change and update their policies, such as group health insurance plans or FSA allocations, to reflect the fact that in redefining marriage, we must also redefine ‘family’ for the purposes of health care policies – and who can access these benefits. Similarly, tax reporting for these benefits will also change; previously, same sex couples were taxed on benefits for their partners, while heterosexual couples were able to pay for these benefits pre-tax.
5. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): Same sex couples are now entitled to take all the leaves protected by the FMLA, from caring for a spouse suffering from a serious medical condition, or a military same-sex couple facing deployment, or maternity/paternity leave. This is a huge deal – and one that if you overlook, will put your company at serious risk of litigation and create the kind of significant compliance violation HR is pretty much paid to preempt.
If you’re an HR or talent management practitioner, the ball is in your court. But no matter how you feel personally, be warned – professionally, you’ve got a responsibility to your employer (and your employees) to make sure that you comply with all laws – and this, as it turns out, is a big one.
So, better get started rewriting those policies now – as painful as that might be, getting sued or fined for non-compliance is probably far worse. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
About the Author: Katrina Kibben is the Director of Marketing for Recruiting Daily, and has served in marketing leadership roles at companies such as Monster Worldwide and Care.com, where she has helped both established and emerging brands develop and deliver world-class content and social media marketing, lead generation and development, marketing automation and online advertising.
An expert in marketing analytics and automation, Kibben is an accomplished writer and speaker whose work has been featured on sites like Monster.com, Brazen Careerist and About.com. A graduate of Pennsylvania State University, Kibben is actively involved in many community and social causes – including rooting for her hometown Pittsburgh Steelers.