ACLU of Michigan Coalition Partner: Why Being "Good" on Discrimination Isn't Always "Good Enough"

The following is an excerpt from the "Great, Not Big" blog, which is authored by Carl Erickson, CEO and cofounder of Atomic Object, a software product development company with offices in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. Atomic Object is a member of the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition, co-founded by the ACLU of Michigan with the goal of updating Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Atomic Object joined the ACLU’s Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition following a couple of eye-opening experiences I had in 2015. The MCWC is organized around the goal of updating Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity. What I learned was that on this issue, it’s not enough to be a company that doesn’t discriminate, and which welcomes and treats everyone respectfully. We’ve been all those things from our founding in 2001. What we haven’t done well in the past is to be explicit and clear about our values and behaviors.

The Atom We Nearly Never Knew

Months after a talented young developer joined Atomic, they shared the fact that as a candidate looking in from the outside, they weren’t at all sure they could be themselves as an employee and not need to hide their sexual orientation. They contrasted this very positively with how things turned out once they were actually an Atom. The fact that they were comfortable as an employee, and didn’t have to waste time and energy masking who they were as a person, isn’t at all surprising to me. The eye-opener was that they couldn’t be sure about this from the outside looking in, even after having gone through our extensive interview process and having read our diversity statement.

The Atom We Could Have Lost

The second eye-opener happened when a long-time employee stopped masking his sexual orientation, and shared that information selectively at work. The news wasn’t a surprise to me, but what blew my mind was being told by people close to him, that he had given serious thought and some worry to whether he could be fired for being open about his sexual orientation. What I dismissed as something that should have been obvious, namely that his employment had nothing whatsoever to do with his sexual orientation, turns out to not be guaranteed by any law. Our somewhat cautious and conservative employee was right—in Michigan you can be fired for no more reason than who you love. And sadly, I’m sure this does happen on a regular basis.

The Big Ah-Ha

These eye-opening experiences made me realize that our open-minded, respectful, non-bigoted, non-discriminating company culture wasn’t enough by itself. We needed to make a strong, positive statement, in a place where it was easy to discover both externally and internally, that we don’t discriminate on various work-irrelevant attributes such as race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Atomic joined the ACLU’s Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition as one way of making that statement.

To read the rest of this blog, go to the Great, Not Big blog.

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