Area business leaders make case for LGBT inclusion


Inclusive businesses prosper.

That was the message conveyed by area business leaders during the spring luncheon hosted by Equality Michigan and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce recently at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

Brian Walker, Herman Miller president and CEO; Rob Vallentine, global director of corporate citizenship for Dow Chemical; and Graci Harkema, senior account recruiting manager with TEKsystems, provided insight to attendees on how LGBT inclusion has enhanced their companies and their own experiences.

Vallentine said a big reason behind Dow’s support of LGBT inclusion comes from the top of the company.

Dow President and COO Jim Fitterling came out after nearly three decades of hiding his sexuality and has spoken about the impact of no longer having to hide a big piece of himself at work.

Vallentine read a quote from Fitterling.

“For nearly 30 years, there was a part of my life I simply did not bring to work, part of my real self I kept hidden.”

Fitterling decided to come out after battling cancer, saying, “Battling and surviving stage 4 cancer has a way of redefining your priorities, and I made a decision: Continuing to hide who I was was one of the stresses I just didn’t need anymore. That was three years ago, and I can tell you the support I received from my colleagues at Dow was overwhelming.”

“He knows firsthand that hiding saps energy and enthusiasm,” Vallentine said.

While LGBT inclusion has no doubt gotten a boost from having an out president and COO, Vallentine said the company has had an LGBT resource group for 16 years and its chief financial officer, Howard Ungerleider, has been supporting inclusion efforts for many years.

“Gays and Lesbians and Allies at Dow, or GLAD, was one of eight groups formed in 2000,” Vallentine said. “At the time, the vision of GLAD was to foster a safe, inclusive, supportive and open working environment for all employees regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

He said the business case for LGBT inclusion is clear.

“Did you know the LGBT community represents $3.7 trillion in global purchasing power?” he asked. “Did you know members of the LGBT community are brand loyal 66 percent of the time even when less LGBT friendlies try to lure them away with lower prices and convenience? Did you know diverse companies are 45 percent more likely to expand market share than their less diverse counterparts are?

“Studies show workplaces that are diverse and inclusive solve problems faster and better, which provides a competitive advantage over non-inclusive companies.”

To become a more inclusive company, Vallentine said Dow focused on four key objectives: employee engagement, HR policies, political advocacy and community engagement.

He said to date, Dow counts $3 million in savings related to recruiting and retention due to its LGBT inclusion efforts.

He acknowledged when Dow first began focusing on LGBT inclusion, not everyone was on board.

“When GLAD was announced, we received some serious backlash, including letters from employees and community members openly opposed to this group,” he said. “The letters expressed anger, non-acceptance and an array of uninformed claims.”

Vallentine said the company refused to back down from what it knew was the right decision and continues to be a vocal supporter of LGBT rights.

“In 2016, there were 195 anti-LGBT bills introduced in 34 states. Dow was engaged with 12 states to help fight that anti-LGBT legislation,” he said.

Herman Miller also is a strong proponent of LGBT inclusion thanks to Walker’s leadership. He said it’s important for companies to get political on this issue.

“I think corporate leaders and businesses have to be able to take a stance on things,” he said. “It takes courage. If you take a stance on one side of an issue, it can hurt you with some customers, but I think what you see leaders of companies doing more, and companies as entities, is looking at their own value systems.

“At Herman Miller, I try to talk to our folks about the issues. I don’t try to tell them how they should vote or what they should decide, but I do think it is our job to help them examine issues from both sides. If we can have an open conversation about it, we can often get everyone to see how to find a middle ground. I’d also say we try hard to make sure we are for things and not against things.”

Walker agreed sometimes it is hard for a company to take a stand on politically controversial issues, and he acknowledged when the company first became vocal about LGBT inclusion there was backlash, including the outing of several employees in what he described as a “vicious email campaign,” but he said over time, even employees who were concerned have come around.

He also said customers tend to be supporters of Herman Miller’s efforts.

“I think, generally, our customers are businesses trying to attract talent, so overall, I think our customers are very supportive of all of our work around inclusiveness,” he said.

Harkema said TEKsystems, a Baltimore-headquartered global provider of IT staffing, talent management and IT services with an office in Grand Rapids, began its LGBT inclusion journey after realizing that’s what its customers were looking for.

“TEK realized if society is moving this way and our partners are doing this, we need to be a part of it, as well,” she said.

Harkema said seeing TEK’s commitment to LGBT inclusion during the interview process was a key reason she joined the company.

“It changed my life,” she said. “I had corporate roles for 10 years, and I myself am a lesbian and I wasn’t out. It’s true what they say, when you are closeted in the workplace, it stunts your performance. You cannot come to work as yourself and its constant. You have this reminder. You have this casual meeting and you are talking about your weekend, and I found myself making up fake boyfriends just to fit into the conversation.”

She said of TEK, “For the first time, I realized I found my career and a place I can grow and excel professionally as my true, authentic self.”

Harkema said TEK is continually improving its inclusion work, recently bringing in a consultant to discuss transgender issues and gender fluidity — topics Herman Miller and Dow said they also are grappling with.

“We all have an understanding of what gay and lesbian is, but we are very confused about other things that often aren’t fitting into a box,” she said. “We realize in our TEKsystems office society is changing, people are evolving and there are new topics here we have not addressed and we need to fully address internally so we can serve our clients.”

She said TEK wants to be a leading resource for clients on LGBT inclusion.

Vallentine summed up why inclusion is so important for businesses.

“We live in a world that is full of diversity. Our global marketplace represents every culture, every race, every possible background, every sexual orientation, persons with disabilities and on and on. That same marketplace is where we find our employees, and it’s where we succeed and fail at attracting and retaining customers. It’s where we partner with others to create solutions to the world’s challenges. It’s where we live and do business. There is no escaping diversity among us, thank goodness.”

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