This op-ed was originally published in the The Advocate
People love Publix.
For the 20th year in a row, Fortune ranked the Florida chain as one of its 100 Best Companies to Work For. (#47, to be exact). Publix, the nation’s 13th largest retailer, with 1,167 locations throughout the Southeast, has a sterling reputation. In 2016, it was called Florida’s most valuable brand.
But the company known for the motto “where shopping is a pleasure” has an unpleasant secret: It’s not such a great place to work if you’re an LGBT+ person.
As has been extensively reported in outlets, including the Miami New Times, Publix has repeatedly been accused of mistreating its LGBT+ employees. On many occasions, LGBT+ employees and former employees have taken legal action against the company for the discrimination they encountered, including extensive patterns of harassment from coworkers and management.
Just a few weeks ago, Publix came under scrutiny because it refused to offer employees health insurance that would cover pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a drug regimen administered to prevent transmission of HIV, which is a proven response to one of the most pressing public health crises in the states where it operates. Three of Publix’s most significant markets – North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida – ranked in the Centers for Disease Control’s list of the 10 states with the highest number of HIV diagnoses in 2016.
Observers wondered whether the company was blocking access to the regimen on moral grounds.
The company eventually backed down and started offering insurance plans that cover PrEP – but its long, poor track record on LGBT+ inclusion still stands. Publix does not receive a score in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, because it refuses to participate. It’s the only Fortune 1000 company that does so. It also scores a 0/100 in HRC’s Buyers Guide for Workplace Equality, an external assessment of major brands’ policies and posture toward LGBT+ people, which finds that it lags behind its peers in the grocery industry, including by not adopting a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation.
This failure to meet industry standards might be one reason why Publix trails peer organizations in terms of its employee satisfaction scores on Glassdoor, where it rates 3.7 stars out of 5. Wegmans and HEB, by comparison, both score a 4.1 by that metric.
And yet in a 2017 survey of 12,000 shoppers conducted by Market Force Information, Publix tied with Wegmans as the most-favored grocery store. Somehow the years of lawsuits and reporting haven’t made a significant dent in public perception. The fact that Publix perennially ranks as one of Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For probably helps.
In its write-up of this year’s rankings, Fortune quotes Publix employees as saying that “our management and other associates are all regarded as family and we would do anything for one another.”
Well … maybe not “anything.”
I can only imagine that Fortune hasn’t done its homework. How else to account for a leading business magazine lauding a company that maintains policies that allow managers to fire LGBT+ people simply for who they are? Fortune says “diversity programs” are one of its criteria for its list. But any company that doesn’t have a nondiscrimination policy inclusive of LGBT+ people ought to be immediately disqualified from a listing of the “best companies to work for.”
What if Publix’s nondiscrimination policy failed to account for African-Americans or women? The company employs 188,000 people, meaning it’s big enough that members of every minority community are well-represented – but not all are protected.
A whopping 62 percent of Americans believe that LGBT people are already protected from employment discrimination by law, but you can still be fired for being gay in 29 states and for being trans in 30 states. One in four LGBT+ employees report experiencing employment discrimination in the last five years.
The fact that Fortune glosses over Publix’s record on LGBT+ inclusion year after year is a reminder that, happy rhetoric about same-sex marriage to the contrary, LGBT+ people are still struggling to have our experiences count.
Maybe Fortune’s list should come with an asterisk: “100 Best Companies to Work For*” (*Unless you’re LGBT+).