On March 23, 2016, the North Carolina Legislature passed House Bill 2, the “Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act” (“HB2”), that overturned a Charlotte ordinance extending anti-discrimination protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (“LGBT”) individuals and allowing transgender persons to use the bathroom of their choice. Instead, HB2 requires individuals to use public bathrooms that match the gender listed on their birth certificates. A swift public outcry followed, with many celebrities denouncing the law and canceling appearances in North Carolina, companies threatening to boycott, and the American Civil Liberties Union filing a lawsuit challenging HB2 as unconstitutional and for violating federal law. North Carolina officials have refused to disavow HB2 and, on May 9, filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking a ruling that HB2 is not discriminatory. The Justice Department has countersued, alleging that HB2 violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). Regardless of the ultimate outcome of these lawsuits, it is clear that discriminating against LGBT individuals has real consequences, from both a business and legal perspective. What should retailers know and, more importantly, do to survive in this current environment?

At a minimum, retailers should familiarize themselves with their state’s employment nondiscrimination laws (if any) that apply to private employers. Twenty states (including California, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York) and the District of Columbia have passed employment non-discrimination laws that prohibit discrimination by private employers based on both sexual orientation and gender identity. Two states (New Hampshire and Wisconsin) have such laws covering sexual orientation only. These laws protect LGBT persons from discrimination in hiring and in the workplace.

Retailers also are encouraged to review their municipality’s nondiscrimination laws and regulations, if any. For example, New York City law prohibits gender identity discrimination, and the New York City Commission on Human Rights recently announced guidance (“NYC Guidance”) that makes clear what constitutes gender identity and gender expression discrimination under the NYC Human Rights Law. The NYC Guidance warns employers and business owners that they may violate New York City law if they intentionally fail to use a transgender employee’s preferred name, pronoun, or title, or refuse to allow a transgender employee to use single-sex facilities, such as bathrooms or locker rooms, and participate in single-sex programs consistent with their gender identity.

Retailers also should know that the EEOC has aggressively pursued transgender discrimination claims on theories of sex stereotyping and gender nonconformity under Title VII, which bars employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their sex.[1] In cases involving government employees, the EEOC has held that: (i) an employer’s restriction on a transgender woman’s use of a common female restroom facility constituted illegal sex discrimination under Title VII,[2] (ii) an employer’s intentional references to a transgender female as “he” may constitute sex-based discrimination and/or harassment,[3] and (iii) a transgender employee stated a valid Title VII sex discrimination claim based on his allegation that his employer took over a year to correct his name in the company’s computer system.[4]

The EEOC has taken further action against private companies. For example, it recently entered into a consent decree with a Minnesota financial services company for allegedly refusing to let a transgender employee use the women’s restroom and subjecting her to a hostile work environment.[5] In another action, a Florida eye clinic paid $150,000 to settle an EEOC lawsuit that sought relief for an employee who was allegedly discriminated against when transitioning from male to female.[6]

In light of this climate, retailers are encouraged to accommodate the needs of transgender workers proactively rather than reactively responding to potential claims of discrimination. Retailers, particularly those operating in states with anti-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation and/or gender identity, should implement a policy designed to foster workplace inclusion. Retailers can avoid significant business and legal risk if they follow these two directives:

  • Call transgender employees by their preferred names, pronouns, and titles, and promptly update internal databases (pay accounts, training records, benefits documents, etc.) with this information upon an employee’s request.The NYC Guidance, for example, advises employers to use the employee’s preferred name regardless of whether the employee has legally changed his or her name “except in very limited circumstances where certain federal, state, or local laws require otherwise (e.g., for purposes of employment eligibility verification with the federal government).” This is a sound policy that retailers beyond New York City should consider following. In addition, employers may choose to offer new business cards and email aliases for their employees.
  • Provide transgender employees access to bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity. On May 3, the EEOC issued a “Fact Sheet” stating that the denial of equal access to a bathroom corresponding to an employee’s gender identity qualifies as sex discrimination prohibited under Title VII and that contrary state law is no defense. The Fact Sheet encourages employers to refer to the more comprehensive “Guide to Restroom Access for Transgender Workers,” which was issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) and offers model practices for restroom access for transgender employees. Like the EEOC, OSHA advises that “all employees should be permitted to use the facilities that correspond with their gender identity.” Where possible, employers should provide employees with additional options, including single-occupancy gender-neutral (unisex) facilities and use of multiple-occupant, gender-neutral restroom facilities with lockable single occupant stalls.

While the North Carolina Legislature has rolled back protections for the LGBT community, the media attention surrounding HB2 has been largely negative and has affected the businesses of companies operating in the state. Given the number of other states that have enacted laws expressly prohibiting sexual orientation and/or gender identity discrimination, the federal government’s enforcement position, and changing public opinion on the issue, retailers are on notice that such discrimination may have negative business or legal ramifications.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Five New Challenges Facing Retail Employers.”