Reader's View: Idaho employers should support “Add the Words”

November 14, 2013 

Our Idaho Legislature has considered amending the Idaho Human Rights Act to include “sexual orientation” and “sexual identity” as protected classes. This amendment would prohibit workplace and housing discrimination based on these characteristics. Our Legislature has rejected this amendment during the 2012 and 2013 legislative sessions.

Former Gov. Phil Batt has continued to demonstrate his trusted leadership and support of basic human rights by recently endorsing an “Add the Words” amendment to the Idaho Human Rights Act. Gov. Batt is not only a Republican statesman, but also a business owner and, as both, he stands in support of this change to the Idaho Human Rights Act.

All Idaho business owners and leaders should share in Gov. Batt’s support of such a change.

Simply put, it is good for business. No one should be subject to discrimination and harassment in the workplace based on being perceived as different by co-workers. If an employee experiences workplace discrimination or harassment, they are not comfortable at work and, as a consequence, they are often less productive in their workplace activities.

The longer such a workplace environment persists, the greater the lost productivity for the employer.

Today, our workplaces are tapestries of different types of workers — and they should be. As employers, we should embrace and promote these differences and understand the value such different backgrounds and life experiences bring to our products, services and customers.

Limiting workplace protections hampers recruitment efforts of Idaho employers, particularly with candidates from outside the state. At any given time, there are critical, specialized positions that Idaho employers need to fill that, due to a number of factors, can’t be filled with local talent. Our state workforce policies should encourage top talent to move to our state and integrate into our communities.

Likewise, our workforce policies should encourage companies to expand into our state. Employers from states that already offer workforce protections to their employees based on sexual orientation may consider our state’s affirmative rejections of such workforce protections as a barrier to expansion.

At least eight Idaho cities from all corners of the state, including Boise, Pocatello and Coeur d’Alene, have adopted ordinances that prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Employers that operate in these cities already have obligations to prohibit this type of workplace discrimination. A change to state law should have no operational or compliance impact on these employers.

On Nov. 7, the U.S. Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by a vote of 64 to 32. The proposed federal law would ban workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The act’s future in the U.S. House of Representatives is uncertain. However, what I do believe to be certain is that the citizens of Idaho prefer to direct their own future through public policy, rather than wait for federal policy that they must follow.

Historically, Idaho has had perception problems around issues of tolerance. As a native, there are pieces of Idaho’s history, even during my lifetime, that I wish were not there. Rather than dwell on what we cannot change, Idaho business leaders should actively encourage the members of the 2014 Legislature to “Add the Words” to the Idaho Human Rights Act. Such an amendment is good for business.

Anne Wilde, JD, is the director of human resources and compliance for the Elks Rehab System. Anne also teaches workplace law as an adjunct professor for the University of Idaho College of Law.

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