Wal-Mart: Doing the Right Thing? or Just a PR Ploy?

Wal-Mart spokesperson Tom Williams says “We want all of our associates to feel they are treated with respect and valued, with no exceptions at all.” That is why, he said, the company recently announced that it would add sexual orientation to its company anti-discrimination policy. (See Seattle Times article.) Coming shortly on the heels of the Supreme Court’s rejection of sexual orientation bias when it overturned sodomy laws in Texas (see Lawrence v. Texas), the timing might appear to reflect the growing strength and influence of the gay rights movement. But given how beleagured Wal-Mart is right now on many other employment-related fronts, we can also wonder whether it is also a public relations ploy designed to boost the company’s image–a boost it surely needs at present, as many associates maintain they have not been valued and treated with respect by Wal-Mart.

Gay-rights advocates, already jubilant over the June 26 Lawrence decision, continued their rejoicing when on July 2, it was announced that Wal-Mart would add sexual orientation to its sexual orientation policy. (See New York Times article) Taking credit for the victory was the Seattle-based Pride Foundation, a gay rights foundation which had lobbied nearly two years for the change as part of a group of Wal-Mart shareholders advocating the change. (See Pride Foundation press release). Wal-Mart quietly announced the change in an internal letter to its 3,500 stores, and will ask store managers to convey the policy change to Wal-Mart’s over 1 million employees. Sexual orientation bias will also now become part of the company’s anti-discrimination and diversity training for employees. (See Feminist Majority Newswire article.)

With this move, Wal-Mart becomes the 9th of the top ten largest U.S. corporations to include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination policy. (See Human Rights Campaign press release.) The lone holdout is Exxon/Mobil, which took a step backward at the time of the 1999 Exxon and Mobil merger by revoking Mobil’s already-existing sexual orientation policy and closing Mobil’s domestic partner benefits program to new employees. (See Equality at Exxon press release.) Wal-Mart’s benefit policy will not change, however; domestic partners of Wal-Mart employees will not be eligible for domestic partnership benefits, unlike employees at 7 of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies. (See HRC’s Fortune 500 Companies That Offer Domestic Partner Health Benefits.

Wal-Mart’s move definitely risked the anger of some of its rural, conservative constituency, which in the past it has taken several steps to appease. Some of its other recent corporate moves included an annoucement that the company has decided to stop selling three men’s magazines it said were too racy and to partially obscure the covers of four women’s magazines on sale in checkout lines, using U-shaped blinders to cover them. Wal-Mart has also historically refused to sell CD’s with labels warning of explicit lyrics. Wal-Mart has already been taken to task by conservative groups such as Focus on the Family and the American Family Association (AFA). (See Cybercast News Service article.) Stephen Crampton of the American Family Association (AFA) decried the move, saying “Just as Neville Chamberlain gave in to Nazi Germany’s outrageous demands, so Wal-Mart has capitulated to the radical homosexual agenda.” However, others praised the move, stating that with the Supreme Court’s Lawrence decision, that other corporations and government entities could be expected to follow suit. See New York Times article)

While Wal-Mart’s timing may not have had so much after all to do with the Lawrence case, as it was supposedly in the works for some time prior to the Supreme Court’s announcement of its ruling, one does wonder how much it has to do with the pending gender discrimination class action suit against Wal-Mart. (See February 10 blog entry for further information on the gender descrimination case against Wal-Mart.) On July 25, a federal court judge in San Francisco will announce whether the lawsuit against Wal-Mart will be allowed to proceed as the largest-ever discrimination class action, including an approximate 1.5 million current and former female employees. (See Fortune article.) As one commentator put it,

What is at stake, by Wal-Mart’s own admission, is its reputation as a company that treats its employees with dignity—a place where, as founder Sam Walton declared, there would be “respect for the individual.”

While that reputation is surely bolstered by Wal-Mart’s change to its anti-discrimination policy, that change may not be enough to overcome the effects of the pending class certification ruling, which will mean that enough evidence exists of corporate discrimination to allow the case to move forward collectively rather than individually. Wal-Mart’s spokespersons will really have their hands full at that point.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.