Psychological Science: In 29 states in the US, it’s still legal to fire someone—or not hire them at all—based solely on their sexual orientation. Although mainstream support for LGBT individuals has been steadily growing, workplace discrimination still poses a serious career challenge for many. Research from APS Board Member Michelle “Mikki” Hebl of Rice University and Laura Barron of the US Air Force Management Policy Division indicates that anti-discrimination laws can not only help protect LGBT people from unfair employment practices, these laws can also dramatically improve the way people are treated by their colleagues.
There is currently no federal law in the US protecting individuals
from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, however,
local anti-discrimination laws often vary widely. Hebl and Barron saw
this patchwork of local laws as an excellent opportunity to empirically
study the effects of anti-discrimination laws on the treatment of gay
and lesbian job applicants.
In Texas, adjacent cities within the Dallas–Fort Worth–Arlington
metro area have notably different laws regarding LGBT protections in the
workplace. While the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth prohibit
employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, the nearby cities
of Arlington, Plano, Irving have no employment protections for LGBT
While these laws can protect people from overt forms of
discrimination (e.g., hiring opportunities and promotions) they don’t
legally protect LGBT employees from more subtle forms of interpersonal
discrimination and ostracism. For example, a hiring manager might smile
less or offer a shorter interview to a gay job applicant compared to a
Hebl and Barron hypothesized that anti-discrimination employment laws
would effectively serve as a symbol for the community’s moral social
norms, effectively making negative interpersonal behavior directed at
LGBT employees less socially acceptable.
To test this theory out in the field, six female and six male
students applied for retail jobs at 295 stores actively advertising job
openings. Some of the stores were located in cities with
anti-discrimination laws, while others were in cities where
discrimination based on sexual orientation was legal.
A student “applicant” walked into the store wearing either a hat
reading “Texan and Proud” or “Gay and Proud” and asked if they could
fill out a job application. Their conversations with prospective
employers were covertly audio-recorded and later evaluated on the basis
of perceived friendliness, helpfulness, and hostility.
In the cities where discrimination was legal, store managers
displayed more negative behavior towards gay job applicants than in
cities that had anti-discrimination laws on the books.
Notably, this was true even after controlling for variables such as
local concentration of LGBT residents and the religious and political
makeup of each city’s population.
“Hence, it is not that gay and lesbian applicants were subject to
less discrimination in cities with anti-discrimination laws simply
because the cities with such laws were less conservative or had a larger
gay population,” Hebl and Barron write. “Rather, it appears that even
after controlling for these area variables, anti-discrimination
legislation still explains additional variability in interpersonal
Another study demonstrated that reduced discrimination still occurs
even when knowledge of the law is randomly assigned and manipulated in a
The researchers recruited a group of 229 participants for a study in
the lab ostensibly investigating job interview techniques. Participants
were randomly assigned to a training module where they were told either
that sexual orientation discrimination is legal or illegal in the city
of Houston. The participant was then matched for a mock interview with a
purported “applicant” who was clearly involved in the university’s LGBT
student group. In reality, the applicant was a member of the research
Audio recordings of these interviews revealed that interviewers were
far more likely to bring up sexual orientation in the legal
discrimination condition. The interview was also shorter and
interviewers used more anxiety-related words compared to the
anti-discrimination law condition.
The results suggest that people are likely to change their behavior
not because they are necessarily afraid of being punished for violating
the law, but because these laws send a clear message about acceptable
moral behavior in the community.
“We argue that the symbolic effects of the law do have the ability to
reduce interpersonal discrimination—these effects occur because
anti-discrimination legislation can create social norms that govern what
is acceptable and unacceptable behaviors to display toward stigmatized
individuals,” the researchers write in the journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law.