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Oct 7, 2021

The keynote speaker at the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) upcoming INCLUSION 2021 conference (Oct 25 – 27) is on record saying that LGBTQ rights are a “distraction” from real issues like jobs. 

Additionally, when it comes to transgender rights related to bathroom laws, her take was this: “Can you imagine now, the boys want to go into the girls bathroom and the girls want to go into the boys bathroom, and they can just say, ‘Oh, well, I was transgender for the moment.’” She then added, “I just can’t get my head around this.”

She has also talked about her discomfort with showing transgender individuals on a popular TV show, complaining that she had to “explain this to my 8-year-old, if I want her to see a nice family show with some nice music.”

Then, too, she has called same-sex marriage a “lifestyle choice.”

All of which begs the question: Why is SHRM having someone who’s made such non-inclusive remarks be a keynote speaker for an inclusion event?

A Problematic Advocate 

Perhaps because the speaker is Gretchen Carlson, a name very familiar not just to HR pros but to the general public. 

You may recall that Carlson was a former Fox anchor who sued then-Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment. The suit led to Ailes resigning and a public apology to Carlson, who received a $20 million settlement. The entire brouhaha was central in igniting the #MeToo movement. 

Carlson has since gone on to be a vocal advocate for women’s empowerment and has been named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.” 

It’s no surprise that SHRM would pick a high-profile figure to headline an event. After all, it’s a common belief that celebrities help boost conference registrations. The real surprise to some observers is that SHRM chose Carlson to speak at this event. 

A Complicated Contradiction

“In today’s changing world of work, fostering sustainable diversity, equity, and inclusive workplace cultures is imperative to the future of our workforce,” SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr. stated in an article announcing the event, adding that “INCLUSION is a catalyst for positive change, energizing attendees to create better workplaces for a better world.”

The problem, critics argue, is that Carlson’s remarks conflict with INCLUSION’s stated objectives. Consequently, says employment attorney Kate Bischoff, “SHRM is making a selection of an individual who has taken stances against a large population that HR serves [the LGBTQ community].” 

“Carlson has not become a true advocate for inclusion,” explains Barbie Winterbottom, an HR consultant and member of the Forbes Human Resources Council. “In what world do her derogatory and condescending and bigoted comments reflect a commitment to inclusion when she has been the epitome of exclusion?”

The promotion of Carlson in an inclusion conference is part of a long string of actions by SHRM that has left a growing number of HR professionals feeling disappointed, disillusioned, and deserted. In this case, various HR pros took to social media to voice their frustrations. For example: 

Brad Galin, an HR director and consultant, tweeted: “So now @SHRM has as a keynote speaker at their INCLUSION conference none other than Gretchen Carlson who dismisses LGBT soldiers, says they were just ‘dressed up’ as ‘members of the military.’” (Galin also told TLNT: “Including Carlson at SHRM’s inclusion conference speaks to a narrow definition of inclusion.”)

Additionally, DEI leader Katrina Jones tweeted: “You can’t claim to advocate for female empowerment while dehumanizing LGBTQ people.”

What’s more, this is not the first time that SHRM has chosen someone with a problematic past in relation to LGBTQ inclusion to keynote its major inclusion event.

At 2019’s Inclusion Conference, the organization brought on New Orleans Saints quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees to keynote. Earlier that year, however, Brees recorded a video for the anti-LGBTQ group Focus on the Family to promote “Bring Your Bible to School Day.” (Brees claimed to have been unaware of the group’s anti-gay-rights advocacy.)

“Not a Pillar of Inclusion”

It’s worth pointing out that Carlson made the comments cited above (along with numerous other statements) years ago. Since then, she has at times supported LGBTQ inclusion. For example, when the Miss America Organization had its first open lesbian contestant, Carlson, who herself was crowned Miss America in 1989, called such progress “fantastic.”

Still, Carlson has not disavowed other positions she’s taken in the past. “What I haven’t heard from her is an acknowledgement that previous comments were insensitive and inappropriate and that she has since educated herself and reversed her position,” says Winterbottom. “When that happens, I will be more than happy to welcome her into conversations around inclusion.”

Critics like Bischoff and Winterbottom also say they would find Carlson’s appearance more palatable if she were at a more general event speaking about ending sexual harassment or forced arbitration agreements, the two topics for which she is best known. (Full disclosure: In 2018 Carlson spoke at the ERE Conference, run by the same parent company of TLNT, about her experience standing up to power.)

“If this were any other conference and Carlson was speaking about forced arbitration or sexual harassment, I’d say go for it.” Bischoff says. “But having her speak at this event about inclusion is a backhanded slap to the folks who have been dedicated to this area for so long. She is not a pillar of what it means to have an inclusive workplace.” 

Questioning SHRM’s Values

As Winterbottom states in an open letter to SHRM about this matter, “This decision is more than tone deaf and…it is becoming increasingly more obvious that this organization does not represent the HR community.”

Nonetheless, Winterbottom remains hopeful, writing, “It’s not too late to turn this ship around. You will earn back more trust and support than you can imagine [by removing Carlson from the agenda] and perhaps start to turn the tide back to the core values and ethics you espouse.” 

SHRM and Gretchen Carlson did not respond to a request for comment.