Walking into the towering Procter & Gamble headquarters downtown can be daunting. Whether you’re a first-time vendor coming to call on the consumer products giant or a new employee swiping your badge for the first time, it’s a lot to take in. Now, imagine being a 21-year-old newly out gay man trying to find your place at one of the largest employers in a place that once had a law on the books (Article XII) prohibiting the city from offering legal protection to its LGBTQ citizens.
And then picture not only being welcomed with open arms, but finding yourself working on a project aimed at opening the doors of acceptance for transgender individuals at the nation’s hair salons via P&G’s Pantene haircare line. “I was nervous coming in because I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the environment,” says Bret Senior, 24, who had never heard of P&G before interviewing for an internship on his college campus in 2016. A year later, after coming out to his family, he went to work in the P&G towers.
His original plan, Senior says, was to use the gig as a stepping stone to a job in a bigger city like New York, where he imagined a more queer-friendly community. “I was honestly pretty nervous, and literally on my first day I walked in and signage for GABLE [P&G’s Gay, Ally, Bisexual, and Lesbian Employees affinity group] was all over the building, magnets on people’s desk, on their badges…whether they’re an ally or part of the community, [as well as the] regular panels and speeches. It literally felt plastered all the over the place and made me feel so comfortable.”
Senior’s experience is a far cry from that of Michael Chanak Jr., an administrative technician who retired from P&G in 2003 after nearly two decades and who is considered by many to be the first openly gay P&G employee. “I was getting anonymous hate mail in the company talking about people praying for me,” he says, recalling that he was warned not to go to the Gay Pride parade in 1986—where he kissed a man and, hence, was outed. He eventually took an early retirement from the company to escape what he calls his then “raving homophobe” boss.
What happened at P&G in the years since he left? If you ask Chanak, 70, a radical mind shift borne from the seeds he and others planted all those years ago. But in a city that long held a reputation as a stubbornly conservative, LGBTQ-unfriendly outpost, the kind of hard-to-pin-down “incremental change” that brings tears to the eyes of a self-described “old-timer” like Chanak is now manifest in quantifiable data.
Over the past 18 years, the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index has rated more than 1,000 of the nation’s largest businesses on their commitment to LBGTQ equality and inclusion. According to a note from HRC President Alphonso David in the 2020 report, “These companies know that protecting their LGBTQ employees and customers from discrimination is not just the right thing to do—it is also the best business decision. In addition, many of these leaders are also advocating for the LGBTQ community and equality under the law in the public square.”
The primary source for the Index is a survey sent every year to prospective respondents that includes links to sample policies and other guidance, with HRC Foundation staff available to offer additional assistance in filling it out. The survey also reviews IRS 990 filings, case law, news accounts, and company reports for information tied to any potentially discriminatory practices.
The latest rankings found 686 U.S. companies earning a perfect score of 100. Five of them are based in Cincinnati: Fifth Third Bancorp, law firm Frost Brown Todd, Kroger, Macy’s, and Procter & Gamble. HRC’s rating system is based on three key categories: nondiscrimination policies across business entities, equitable benefits for LGBTQ workers and their families, and support for an inclusive culture and corporate social responsibility.
“I give P&G credit. It’s not just pinkwashing [when a company presents itself as LGBTQ-friendly in order to downplay obvious problems]…and, more than anything, I’m humbled,” Chanak says of the changes he’s seen. “It might have taken them a while, but good on them for doing what’s right.” For Senior, that welcoming environment in 2017 made him comfortable coming out to his coworkers at a pivotal point in his life, but it also points to the business value those perfect-scoring companies have found in ensuring a warm and supportive environment for their LGBTQ employees.
Kroger has landed a perfect 100 score two years in a row (2019, 2020), and according to Angel Colón, senior director of diversity and inclusion, that achievement is a reflection of the company’s six core corporate values, which include diversity and inclusion. Another two, he says, are just as critical: safety (creating a safe place for associates to be who they are) and respect (acknowledging others’ differences).
“We have to acknowledge that people have different opinions, different experiences [and] therefore they’re going to have different ideas, and that’s where we get innovation from,” says Colón. “It is very important no matter who you are that we acknowledge those differences. That’s where respect comes into play here.”
All of those corporate values—including the four focused on diversity and inclusion—are taught in new hire orientation, where Kroger newbies are also informed about the company’s Associate Resource Groups (ARGs). Of the 10 available, one is the Pride group.
“The Associate Resource Groups are like a family, where people belong and can express themselves, share their concerns, and help the community…but it’s also where the associates can help themselves personally and professionally and pride is a big part of that,” says Colón, who first came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico at 12 to play in the Little League World Series. After college, he developed a determination to help underserved communities with his business degree.
Colón hears a lot of stories in those ARGs, including one from an associate in Utah who was trying to find a company that accepted his values in the staunchly conservative state. He was delighted that an online search revealed the Kroger Pride ARG, which led to an interview and his continuing employment to this day. In a recent exit interview, Colón says he heard from an associate who had personal struggles outside of work but came to lean on the ARG like a “second family,” inspiring him to stay at the company longer because of that support.
Perhaps the story that speaks to Colón the most, however, is that of the countless LGBTQ associates who came to him after Cincinnati’s 2019 Pride Parade, in which Kroger practiced what he terms “total company support and advocacy.” That included a float with a DJ and samples of the house unicorn ice cream, as well as CEO Rodney McMullen and numerous other executives marching with employees.
“I can’t tell you how many companies would tell me they were shocked that our CEO was there, our chief people officer was there,” says Colón, who moved from the company’s multicultural development department to his current “dream come true” job nearly three years ago after a decade at Kroger. For him, the executive presence at Pride proves that the deeply held support for Kroger’s LGBTQ associates comes from the top down. Landing the perfect HRC score is, he says, a companywide effort, from the Pride ARG to the participation of senior executives, the diversity and inclusion team, human resources, legal, corporate affairs, and marketing departments across 2,700 locations in 35 states.
With more than 500 attorneys, Frost Brown Todd is one of the largest law firms in the Midwest. Kim Amrine has been the firm’s director of diversity and inclusion since 2006 and says the No. 1 reason she chose Frost was because of its inclusive culture. “To be candid, in 2006 I didn’t know what the Corporate Equality Index was,” she says of her introduction to the annual survey, which she came to understand as a useful benchmarking tool for measuring workplace equality.
What Amrine quickly learned was that the CEI covers everything from best practices for employee benefits to training, corporate responsibility, and supplier diversity via easy-to-follow tools designed to help achieve those diversity goals. Frost began applying in 2009 and has now scored 100 six years running. “We’re proud of that,” she says, adding that when it comes to diversity and inclusion you’re almost never “claiming an A-plus” because it’s a constant drive to improve.
Managing Associate Ryan Goellner joined the firm in 2015 and jokes that it happened to coincide with Frost’s first top ranking. “Seeing out and proud LGBTQ people at the firm and getting to know Kim and the important work she was doing to implement the CEI was personally important to me in deciding to start my career at Frost Brown Todd,” says Goellner, who had been a legal intern in 2014.
A native of suburban Cleveland, Goellner, 30, was drawn to Frost after meeting one of the firm’s partners, Doug Dennis, whom Goellner says welcomed him wholeheartedly for his “whole person.” At the same time, an older friend in finance in New York—who was not out in the workplace—suggested Goellner take the line off his résumé about his leadership position at the Out & Allies group at UC’s College of Law if he wanted to land a job at a big law firm. “He told me he thought it would be a problem,” he says. “He wasn’t out and didn’t think one could be out and get a job at a major law firm in a conservative town like Cincinnati.”
Goellner decided he wasn’t going to be inauthentic or alter his résumé, determined to find a firm that would accept him as he is. The line stayed in. An offer came relatively quickly after his 2014 summer associate run, by which point several people at the firm had met his partner, Matthew. “This place is the real deal,” Goellner says about why he accepted the offer in a heartbeat. “I felt embraced as a person and the entirety of me as a person. It was just so welcoming.”
Goellner serves as chair of the Cincinnati Bar Association’s LGBT Interest Committee and is proud when he visits UC’s College of Law to describe Frost’s inclusion efforts. The ability to brag a bit about the 100 score isn’t so terrible, either. “Being able to say that, and to not just implement but stay ahead of the CEI best practices, has been an important networking and recruiting tool,” he says. Amrine notes that an annual internal survey has shown that the CEI score led to companywide pride about working at a firm that values equity and inclusion.
“It’s great for us to be able to celebrate with some of our clients—like Kroger, GE, Macy’s, Honda, and Procter & Gamble—who’ve also achieved that 100 score,” says Amrine. “You get to celebrate in a way together, because you understand you’ve put in place policies, practices, [and] action steps that take effort, documentation, planning, and intentionality.”
For Kroger, P&G, and Frost Brown Todd, the Corporate Equality Index score is about more than just checking boxes. It’s about baking commitment into the core of the companies’ values in order to hold themselves accountable, while working every year to ensure those efforts meet, and exceed, the evolving standards.
“If you looked at a city like Cincinnati and told someone 20 years ago that it would be on the leading edge of corporate equality, most people would definitely be surprised,” says Brent Miller, global LGBTQ+ equality program leader of creative content and story development at P&G. The company’s GABLE group, which launched in 1992 with five members in Cincinnati, has now spread to 41 countries with more than 5,000 members.
Chanak remembers being told repeatedly that the kind of equality he was seeking was “never gonna happen” at P&G, with one manager stating bluntly, “We’re not obliged to do it and won’t do it.” By law, P&G still isn’t obliged—though a series of cases pending in the Supreme Court could impact the work companies have been doing to ensure equality in the workplace.
For Senior, an assistant brand manager on Pantene, that commitment led to his latest project: transforming the hair care line’s Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful campaign into a forum to authenticate LGBTQ beauty. An upcoming promotion is based on research finding that more than 90 percent of trans individuals feel uncomfortable going to hair salons after transitioning; P&G is partnering with a charity for ongoing training to help stylists become more queer-friendly and trans-accepting.
“I walk in every day, and the best way to describe it is I feel full,” says Senior of his current morning arrivals at the P&G headquarters. “Everyone has tough days at work, but despite what is happening around me I feel I can stand tall, full, and accepted.”