In this post, the second of three posts on diversity in the workplace, we examine how last week’s Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage will impact organizations in states where gay marriage is now legal for the first time and further examine how organizations can prepare their HR staff for the pending changes.
Last week, two years after the Supreme Court first voted to strike down DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), the Supreme Court reinforced its support for gay marriage. Prior to last week’s ruling, gay marriage was already legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia. For workplaces in “holdout states” (states that chose not to follow the 2013 ruling), however, the impact of last week’s Supreme Court decision is significant. First, it will set in motion a myriad of changes to the structure of benefits packages for married gay and lesbian employees. Second, it means that whether or not one’s human resources staff are for or against marriage equality, they will now be expected to process benefits for gay and lesbian employees and their families. For this reason, organizations in the “holdout states” are being advised to take immediate steps to prepare for the change.
Review Existing HR Policies and Benefits Forms
In states that previously did not recognized gay marriage, gay and lesbian employees who are married will now be recognized as married. As a result, these employees will need to change their tax withholdings from single to married.
The Uh Oh Syndrome discusses how individuals react and respond to those who sound, act and look different from them.
The most notable impact, however, will be on employee benefits. For this reason, organizations that offer a 401(k) or any other retirement plan should review all documentation related to their plan to ensure it can accommodate same-sex married couples. This may mean changing existing language (e.g., husband and wife) to a gender neutral term, such as spouse. In addition, health benefits extended to employee’s spouses will now also be extended to same-sex spouses. Again, organizations may need to revise their policies to reflect the fact that same-sex married couples are now eligible for partner benefits. Finally, organizations will need to recognize that other legislation that traditionally excluded same-sex spouses (e.g., the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees unpaid leave due to a spouse’s illness) will now apply to same-sex couples. In short, organizations in “holdout states” will need to carry out a complete review of any workplace policies that may be impacted by the Supreme Court ruling and revise these policies accordingly along with any related benefits forms.
While revising policies and forms is an important first step, the Supreme Court ruling also means that employees who may have not been out at work prior to the ruling will now be coming out—at least to staff in HR who manage tax withholdings and/or benefit policies. This means that beyond revising policies and forms to ensure that same-sex couples are included, HR departments need to be prepared to work with gay and lesbian employees in a respectful manner. After all, failure to process spousal benefits for gay and lesbian employees and to do so in a respectful and confidential manner may have consequences. Among other recommendations, organizations in states where marriage equality has just been implemented are advised to take the following steps:
• Meet with all HR staff to identify policies and practices impacted by the Supreme Court ruling.
• Clarify procedures for addressing how to work with gay and lesbian employees over the coming weeks as policies and practices are officially revised to come into line with the ruling.
• Discuss protocols for working with gay and lesbian employees.
• Develop internal policies for addressing potential workplace conflicts brought about by the ruling (e.g., how to handle a benefits coordinator whose religious beliefs are in conflict with marriage equality).
• Contract a third party to carry out an awareness workshop on LGBT issues for HR staff whose work is most likely to be impacted by the Supreme Court ruling.