Contrary to expectation, the 2014 Corporate Equality Index shows a general improvement for LGBT rights in Tennessee companies. However, these corporations remain far from egalitarian.

A national benchmarking tool used to evaluate corporate policies and practices regarding lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual employees, the CEI has been released annually by the Human Rights Campaign since 2002.

This year, Tennessee companies received scores ranging from 15 at Nashville-based Vanguard Health Systems to 35 at Regal Entertainment Group in Knoxville. Nissan, headquartered in Franklin, Tenn., represents the state's only company that scored a perfect 100.

Major companies are graded on a scale of zero to 100 based on the "10 principles" outlined by the HRC. Corporations receive high scores if they have a written policy of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, include sexual orientation issues in diversity and sensitivity training and provide equal benefits to all employees.

This year, 304 American companies received perfect scores, a number larger than any previous year.

In the past two years, Nissan has increased its score by 70 points.

"The two biggest factors that catapulted us to a perfect score were the implementation of a company-wide diversity training program and the launch of Nissan's LGBT affinity group, the Gay-Straight Alliance at Nissan," Robert Wilson, director of Diversity and Inclusion, said at Nissan in a Dec. 10 press release.

Companies based in Southern states tend to score lower in comparison with other regions, with companies like Chick-fil-A making headlines for anti-gay policies.

"I think Tennessee, like most other states in the Deep South, have historically been socially conservative and leery of change," Donna Braquet, director of the OUTreach Center, said. "This was true for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and it is true today."

However, businesses with conservative reputations, such as Cracker Barrel in Lebanon, Tenn., have progressed significantly in recent years.

In 1991, Cracker Barrel received criticism for firing gay employees based on a policy that required workers to display "normal heterosexual values." While Cracker Barrel still lacks a written non-discrimination policy, the company added LGBT content to its employee training seminars and partnered with LGBT-owned companies in 2013.

Chris Sanders, director of the Tennessee Equality Project, believes companies are learning that adding LGBT rights and protections are good for business.

"The driving force is the desire of smart companies to attract and retain the best employees and just a recognition that the workforce and the culture are changing," Sanders said. "Having a diverse workforce also allows a business to stay in touch with the changes in its markets. Many companies really look at the CEI as a gauge of what their peers are doing and what they should be doing."

Braquet asserted that the increased visibility of LGBT people and issues have also influenced corporate attitudes.

"They see that we are people who have families, jobs, bills, dreams and hopes," Braquet said. "The marriage equality movement has been huge in this shift."

Although LGBT equality has seen an upward trend in the workplace, Sanders holds that Tennessee businesses still lack certain essential provisions for LGBT employees.

"Many Tennessee based companies still need to catch up on the basics: inclusive non-discrimination policies and partner benefits," Sanders said. "In particular, I think there is low awareness in the Tennessee business community of the value transgender employees bring to the workplace and, hence, there is a low level of protection for these employees or potential employees. The transgender jobless rate tends to be significantly higher than the general population around the country."

Along with the 2014 index, the HRC also released a new set of criteria for the 2016 index. This index will set higher standards for U.S. corporations. Among other reforms, the 2016 index will require businesses seeking a perfect score to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity protections in all operations, in the U.S. and globally.

"I think it is pretty simple," Braquet said. "No one should have to worry about not being hired or losing their job just because of who they are or who they happen to love.

"If you have good employees, why wouldn't you want to treat them fairly and make (them) want to stay?"