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Wells Fargo Banks on Gay Friendly Policies

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Monday Jul 29, 2013
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Wells Fargo was a pioneer in bringing banking to the Wild West. It is best known for its coaches that served as a postage service to far-flung territories -- something any show queen knows from the song "Wells Fargo Wagon" in "The Music Man." Headquartered in San Francisco, it has grown to become the fourth-largest bank in the country, with a popular debit card, home mortgages and financial services.

It was also a pioneer in protecting its gay employees. Way back in 1987, it added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy; this at a time when AIDS was threatening to make us pariahs all over again.

In 2011, DiversityInc ranked Wells Fargo among the top 10 companies for LGBT employees. It rates a sparkling 100 from the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. In 2008, stockholders voted down a proposal that would have mandated the company couldn’t provide same-sex partner benefits and would have ended its spectacular record of giving to LGBT-related organizations and causes.

The Pride Team Member Network for LGBT employees has 37 chapters. The company has been actively lobbying Congress to pass the long-delayed Employment Non-Discrimination Act. And it actively solicits LGBT employees through outreach at job fairs.

The policies extend into every corner of the financial giant’s many divisions. Last year, the national LGBT bar association honored Wells Fargo with its Out & Proud Corporate Counsel Award for programs like demanding some of the most detailed data on diversity from law firms.

Any outside counsel doing business with Wells Fargo is "encouraged" (polite for "must provide") the number of LGBT attorneys. "We are interested in providing a fair and inclusive environment for all of our legal professionals," Jim Strother, Wells Fargo’s top lawyer, said upon receiving the award. "It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s good for business."

As of last, year, the company donated an astounding $219 million to 19,000 nonprofits, including many LGBT organizations. That represented 25 years of support through grants, sponsorships and volunteerism. That works out to $266,000 every day.

Anti-bullying campaigns have become a particular focus -- a response to concerns expressed by LGBT employees.

This year, Wells Fargo teamed up with organizations supporting LGBT youth in cities across the country, such as GLSEN, the It Gets Better Project and the Trevor Project. Employees marched alongside these groups to heighten awareness of anti-bullying efforts.

This is a good example of a company doing well by doing good. It doesn’t hurt that we very often have what Wells Fargo handles: investment capital. In general, LGBT Americans really are more affluent than the general population. Although more and more gay families are undercutting the DINK ("double income no kids") paradigm, it’s still true that many of us have more money to invest.

Earlier this year, the company conducted a survey of 1,100 adults, 600 of them gay identified. It found that we were a lot more optimistic about the economy than the general public. It also showed that we’re more confused about how to save for retirement -- music to Wells Fargo’s ears.

Mark Ng, who heads the LGBT division of the Strategy and Segments division, readily acknowledges the fact that we make great customers. Not only do we have money, but we also like corporations that like us. We sit up and take notice advertising in gay media -- especially ads that don’t condescend or ignore us.

In an interview with DiversityInc, Ng noted that companies "are really waking up to the fact that this is a segment that is affluent, profitable, loyal and has really, really stepped up in terms of responding to corporations holistically and authentically targeting them."

That means educating its financial advisors on the particular needs of our community. As CNN Money wrote last year, "Things have only gotten more complicated for same-sex couples as some states legalize gay marriage and civil unions."

Kyle Young, a high-ranking investment officer at Wells Fargo Advisors, told CNN Money that his very high income-earning LGBT customers present "a real business opportunity. We’re providing a much-needed resource and, at the same time, it’s a very clear business decision. And the demand for the kind of resources we provide is just going to grow going forward."

There’s even a special certification for advisors to LGBT couples. Wells Fargo worked with the College of Financial Planning to develop its own course structure, which is open to all advisors. The number of its accredited advisors quadrupled in two years. The company publishes a popular LGBT-specific financial guidebook.

In a 2012 article that singled out Wells Fargo’s support for local Pride celebrations U.S. News and World Report echoed Ng’s mantra. Noting that "the decision to promote gay rights is simply good business sense." Wells Fargo has been involved in local Pride celebrations for 21 years.

Sponsoring Pride has definitely drawn customers, Ng told the magazine. "Consumers are just as interested in a company’s values as they are with out company’s products and services."

The company has been refreshingly innovative in its participation in local Prides. For example, it sponsored a free day at San Francisco’s GLBT Museum one year on Pride Sunday. In 2007, it donated $300 from every mortgage to the buyer’s charity of choice.

In 2011, the company made a giant leap from its already-profound commitment when it participated in 40 Pride marches and festivals. That list ranges far from the "usual suspects" and the affluent big cities. Included are cities that most people probably didn’t realize even celebrated Pride, such as Boise, Idaho, and Birmingham, Ala., as well as targeted events such as Philadelphia’s Black Pride.

In a nice touch, no boys in bikinis were dancing to disco music on top of flatbed trucks. Instead, the trademark stagecoach rolled along. What other major corporations would use such an ingenious way of making a Pride march more of a parade?

The best statement of the company’s ongoing and profound commitment to equality comes from "Faith Driven Consumers," a website that analyzes how much a company adheres to its vision of righteousness.

The verdict on Wells Fargo? "It is a staunch advocate for the GLBT lifestyle and disseminates this messages through various advertisements and philanthropy." There’s a "significant need for improvement for this company to be more faith-friendly," according to the website.

A more powerful testimonial would be hard to find.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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