04/20/2016 Molly Moseley

HR takeaways from North Carolina’s controversial transgender laws

shutterstock_392752957North Carolina has made headlines recently after it announced a law that blocks local governments from passing anti-discrimination rules to protect gay and transgender people. This hot-button issue has everyone talking and backlash has been extensive.

Disney has vowed to cease any filming in the state. Musicians have cancelled shows in protest, including Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr. Businesses have stopped expansion plans in the state, like PayPal canceling plans to open a global operations center in Charlotte. Politicians are speaking out, including Minnesota’s own Governor Mark Dayton, who has banned non-essential business travel by state employees to North Carolina.

After great criticism, North Carolina’s governor modified the law, although much of it is still intact. According to United Press International, “McCrory used his executive order to try to peel back some of the effects of the law just 20 days after signing it. His order would prevent state workers from being fired for being gay or transgender. He also said he wants legislation that would give workers the right to sue for discrimination.”

This is a charged issue, and it certainly has interesting implications for employers and HR. Personal feelings aside, how can businesses support employees on both sides of the issue, prevent discrimination and stay politically neutral?

Beth Zoller, a legal editor with XpertHR, brings up a good point, saying that while this state law blocks local governments from passing anti-discrimination rules, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission makes it clear discrimination will not be tolerated.

“Even though North Carolina employers may be free to do as they wish under state law, it is wise for such employers to establish strict policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation against LGBT individuals and make sure that such individuals do not suffer unequal treatment in the workplace,” says Zoller. “Otherwise, an employer may face an anti-discrimination claim under federal law.”

In regard to the controversial rule that employees must use the bathroom assigned to the gender noted on their birth certificated, Zoller says, “Employers should permit all employees, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, to use the restroom corresponding with their full-time gender identity and presentation, and provide all employees with access to restrooms that are safe, sanitary, convenient and dignified or face fines under OSHA.”

An employer is bound to have employees on both sides of this issue and the goal is to ensure that no one feels uncomfortable. One idea that Zoller offers is to allow workers uncomfortable with transitioning or transgender employees to use separate restroom facilities, such as a unisex single-occupant restroom. “The burden should be on the non-transgender individual to use a separate facility, otherwise the employer may risk a discrimination claim,” Zoller says.

While the laws are specific to North Carolina, these types of issues are affecting employers worldwide. What can other U.S. businesses learn from this?

“Whenever there is a divisive issue in the news that affects the workplace, your first priority is to make sure it doesn’t tear your team apart,” says Greg Harris, the president and CEO of Quantum Workplace. “To do that you need an environment that supports inclusion and provides everybody with an appropriate and safe way to report any discrimination they may encounter.”

My opinion is that it’s best to err on the side of caution and meet a higher standard. Always maintain open conversation with employees and ensure everyone feels safe. Understanding and inclusion today will positively affect your business for years down the road.