The state legislature’s inaction on extending equal civil rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people has led a growing number of prominent West Michigan business leaders to call for change.
While Michigan business and political leaders have worked hard over the last several years to bolster the perception of Michigan as a welcoming place for skilled workers, many stakeholders say the state could go even further by amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include equal protections for the LGBT community.
One of the executives leading the charge is Carl Erickson, the co-founder and CEO of Atomic Object LLC, a Grand Rapids-based software development firm. When he launched the company in the early 2000s, Erickson told MiBiz that he aimed to build a non-discriminatory, non-judgmental culture where employees could be open about their sexual orientation.
He thought the system was working — that is, until two employees informed management and other co-workers of their sexual orientation and expressed uncertainty about what revealing it would mean for their future at the company.
That’s when Erickson said he realized the firm’s diversity statement didn’t go far enough.
“(They) helped me realize that you have to be explicit about your position on these things because what you know about yourself and what you know internally doesn’t necessarily show through from the outside,” Erickson said.
That realization spurred Erickson to join the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition, a program of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan that consists of more than 50 businesses or professional organizations from around the state.
The stated goal of the Coalition: To update Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 to include equal protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. Amending the law remains important because Michigan companies can deny employment or fire a worker entirely based on his or her sexual identity, Erickson said.
While simply joining the Coalition may not immediately sway the state’s legislature to take action, it still has meaning and sends an important message to Atomic Object’s clients, said Dana Friis-Hansen, executive director and CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM).
Friis-Hansen, who is gay, moved to Grand Rapids with his husband in 2011 despite some concerns about conservative West Michigan’s perceived inhospitality toward the LGBT community.
“I would say that every step like that helps, and it’s signaling to a range of constituencies,” Friis-Hansen said. “It’s the people who work there, it’s their clients, even their competitors. When you stand for something, it has impact.”
While making the decision to join the Coalition was easy on a personal level, Erickson said it was important to ensure that employees and Atomic Object’s stakeholders understood why he was doing it.
Erickson said he’s worked hard to let people know that his company is “pretty liberally oriented … and very progressive.”
“If a place like that can’t look friendly from the outside and can be a place that a longtime employee can’t comfortably express his sexual orientation, imagine what it’s like for people in a more traditional, blue-collar factory or just a not very progressive company,” Erickson said. “At the very least, I think it would be valuable for other companies like Atomic to realize that you can’t take it for granted even if you are a welcoming place.”
FORMING A COALITION
While Erickson’s decision to join the fight was largely based on his desire to support equality, he acknowledged there’s also a business case because it lets potential talent know that Atomic Object is a welcoming company compared to competitors who may not take the same action.
It’s a common theme among many of the members of the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition, said Kary Moss, executive director of ACLU of Michigan, which administers the group.
The lack of comprehensive civil rights protections for LGBT individuals in the state brought together some of the state’s top executives who believe that expanding equal protections would bolster the state’s talent attraction and retention efforts, she said.
“A lot of the business people we were talking to were particularly concerned about being able to recruit and retain talent in West Michigan,” Moss said. “Internally, they’d already gotten on board with domestic partnership benefits and other best business practices.”
The Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition formed about four years ago, according to Moss. She is one of four co-chairs of the coalition, along with Brian Walker, the CEO of Zeeland-based Herman Miller Inc.; Cindy Pasky, the CEO of Detroit-based Strategic Staffing Solutions; and Jim Murray, the CEO of AT&T of Michigan.
Sources said that business-backed groups such as the Competitive Workforce Coalition in many ways have led the charge for LGBT equality, while the state’s lawmakers have balked at taking action in the last several sessions, despite a string of bills being introduced in recent years.
Most recently, talks fell apart at the end of 2014 when bills that were introduced failed to include protections for the transgender people, the omission of which was a nonstarter for many equality supporters.
“The issue of gender identity became a dealbreaker, and we couldn’t sacrifice on that,” Moss said.
Moss added that she considers Gov. Rick Snyder an ally in this fight, pointing to his urging the state legislature to expand the Civil Rights Act in his 2015 State of the State speech.
“I think that’s pretty significant,” she said.
As MiBiz has previously reported, some claim Snyder’s track record is mixed at best regarding LGBT issues. While Snyder called for amending Elliott-Larsen and is a staunch anti-bullying advocate, he signed legislation in 2011 that barred local governments and public schools from offering benefits to same-sex partners.
Moreover, one of the cases that eventually led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage began in Michigan where Snyder was named as a defendant.
Stakeholders such as the GRAM’s Friis-Hansen say it’s important for the state’s business and political leaders to be active in supporting the extension of civil rights protections, particularly as a means of talent attraction.
“If diverse (people) of all different kinds perceive that this is an inhospitable region, it works against us all, especially with younger people,” he said. “I believe that attracting and retaining people in the community, especially for knowledge-based jobs, (is important).”