DOMA’s Demise: A Wake-Up Call for Employers

When the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was struck down by the Supreme Court earlier this week, the move sent shock waves through the HR community. DOMA’s disappearance has far-ranging implications for lots of communities, beginning with the gay and lesbian employees and dependents whose benefits will now equal those of their straight, married counterparts.

As HR people, we took it in stride that gays and lesbians should have different levels of benefits at work. We said, “Well, that’s the law.” Of course, it was never the law that companies should pay out different levels of benefits to different employees based on their romantic relationships at home! That has always been our choice as employers.

We HR leaders made a fatal error when we wrote our HR policies, handbooks, and benefit plans merely to comply with existing laws. That was way too low a bar. It was a corporate culture cop-out, you might say. We knew that our gay and lesbian co-workers were getting hosed. It was an organizational decision, in every case, to limit the benefits paid out to every one of our employees. The death of DOMA is a huge wake-up call for employers, because the universe is telling us loudly: “Set the bar higher, where your team is concerned.”

We don’t have to peg our wages and benefits to prevailing legal standards in every city, state, and country in which we operate. Would we peg our customer-service policies to merely what local laws require? Not likely. We’re used to dealing with customers and suppliers as though they are valued partners in our businesses. Our relationships with them are governed less by minimum legal requirements and more by our desire to work collaboratively for the benefit of all parties.

Not so with employees, for far too many employers. Organizations that merely complied with the old DOMA-era laws are scrambling to rewrite policies, employee communication materials, and training programs, and they’ll be at the task for months.

To avoid the tedious rewrites and expensive reprinting headaches in the future, corporate leaders can get ahead of all that by setting their sights higher than “Our Employee Relations goal is to not break the law.” They can establish a human workplace that attracts the best talent in their industries.

When you shift your human resources lens away from “What does the law require?” toward “What will it take to hire awesome people and keep them excited?” everybody’s job gets easier. If we could get away from the prevailing compliance mind-set in HR and teach human resources people to build trust, collaboration, and creativity among their co-workers, the vast majority of our HR-related regulatory headaches would go away.

In my experience, it’s the command-and-control, policy-mad organizations that get all the complaints and charges filed against them. It’s the human organizations that make communication easy, share the news of successes and failures, and acknowledge their humanity and fallibility every day that avoid those problems.

The era of “Business is business, so please check your humanity at the door” is over. The Supreme Court put a stake in its heart. The human workplace is here, and not a moment too soon.

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