Wal-Mart added insurance coverage for transgender workers this year, joining more than 500 companies taking a bigger role in advancing the rights of LGBT employees in a competitive market for labor.
Companies from Apple to Xerox are pushing to protect employee rights and improve gender equality as some legislative efforts have stalled. In 28 states, it's still legal to fire a person for being gay, and President-elect Donald Trump has said he will rescind President Barack Obama's executive orders, some of which aim at workplace diversity.
"Corporate America has risen to the top in terms of being a high-impact influencer" on LGBT rights, said Deena Fidas, director of the workplace equality project at the Human Rights Campaign, the largest advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. "We have corporations going on the record at the federal level, at the judicial level and certainly at the state level speaking out against what we would call anti-LGBT bills."
The Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index, an annual list that indicates how companies are doing on LGBT-friendly policies, will be released this week. Wal-Mart was among a total of 517 companies, the most ever, that earned a perfect score of 100 points, the group said, up from 407 last year. Wal-Mart, which scored 90 points the last two years, has moved up from 40 points in 2011.
Some companies, including Salesforce, PayPal and Dow, have also started working with LGBT rights advocates on plans to take on expected anti-LGBT legislation at the state level. The group met in San Francisco last month, the companies confirmed, declining further comment on specific states or tactics. In Texas alone, as many as 50 related bills may be introduced in 2017, said Matthew McTighe, executive director of Freedom for All Americans, who attended the meeting. The Washington D.C.-based organization aims to defeat laws seen as anti-LGBT.
More than 1,000 companies, including Whole Foods and Marriott, are poised to speak out against Texas laws seen as hostile to LGBT people, said Jessica Shortall, director of the group Texas Competes, which coordinates business response to the laws.
Wal-Mart has been among those speaking out against anti-LGBT laws at the state level, helping defeat a 2015 rule in Arkansas. Large companies such as Dow and Salesforce were key to beating back more than 150 laws in more than 30 states, although North Carolina did pass a law that forbids transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice.
Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in the U.S. and the world's biggest retailer, has been trying to improve its image to appeal to more customers, particularly on the east and west coasts, where its reputation for low wages and poor benefits has hurt its ability to open new stores.
The corporate equality index scores companies in five categories, including insurance benefits and diversity training. The scale is from 0, where a company is not seen as meeting any requirements of an inclusive workplace, to 100, considered the most welcoming. Adding transgender health insurance coverage landed Wal-Mart its extra points this year, a move that may be largely symbolic because studies have determined that as few as 1 in 20,000 employees will use the benefit.
"At Wal-Mart, respect for the individual is one of the core beliefs that are the foundation of our company," spokesman Kevin Gardner said in an e-mailed statement. "We are committed to fostering an inclusive work environment for our more than 2 million associates around the globe."
Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon has been more willing than past CEOs to take a stand on social issues, including removing merchandise that included the confederate flag. The company has also committed to spend $2.7 billion on higher pay and better training, and boosted its minimum wage to $10 an hour.
Retailers have seen push-back from customers for coming out too strongly in support of transgender issues. After Target said customers and employees could use the bathroom that fit with their gender identity, it faced protests and boycotts. Eventually, the company said it would spend $20 million to add single-toilet, family restrooms in all of its stores.
Target, which also scores 100 in the HRC index, said it was unable to determine if the boycotts had an impact on sales, but said it was listening to customers who expressed their concern about sharing a bathroom with a transgender person.
And some still resist LGBT-friendly policies, Ms. Fidas said. About 8% of companies examined by the index don't have even basic hiring and firing protection for gay employees and 18% don't recognize gender identity in their policies, she said. A total of 887 companies participated.