Rapid Blog: Atomic Object's CEO on discrimination & when being good isn't good enough

Taking a stand against discrimination in the workplace is the right thing to do — and it's good for business.
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. We also:
  • improved the diversity statement on our website,
  • discussed with and got support for our MCWC membership from our internal advisory board,
  • shared and solicited input and support from the company as a whole,
  • added a reference to this blog post to our new employee orientation,
  • reached out to a local business reporter to propose a story on this issue,
  • and clarified the equal opportunity clause in our employee manual.
Other Workplaces

During the process of considering the issue, one of our employees pointed out that the changes to our state’s civil rights act were probably even more important to the many people who are less in demand in the labor market, and work at places that are less enlightened than Atomic. She reminded me of the many privileges that all of us at Atomic enjoy, and which many people in Michigan don’t share. Another colleague put some color on that observation by sharing a story about how her brother-in-law was challenged at work about whether he was gay because he didn’t wear camouflage, wasn’t a hunter, and read books on break. If a conventional, traditional, heterosexual guy faces that sort of inquisition, imagine the anxiety and threat that someone who was lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender would feel.

Part of our mission is connection and contribution to the communities we operate in. If our advocacy for the ACLU’s campaign can help employees in other companies in Michigan we’d consider that a positive accomplishment.

Competitive Advantage

I don’t need to find competitive advantage to our business to know what the right behavior is. Atomic’s culture is one of inclusiveness and respect, driven by who Atoms are as people. We’d be that way even if it cost our business something. So it’s not necessary, but it certainly is interesting to consider the cost we nearly paid in the two scenarios above.

The employee who wasn’t sure during the hiring process was a great Atom for nearly two years before Google lured them out to San Francisco with a dream job. I’m hopeful we get them back when they eventually return to Michigan.

The long-time employee we could have lost is a model Atom and fills a vital role in the company. Such people are not easy to find.

It’s not difficult to put a monetary value on the ability to attract and retain talent. The ACLU is right to frame this as a competitive issue. More importantly, treating everyone respectfully and allowing them to be themselves at work, and raising awareness of the issue of discrimination, is just the right thing to do.

Carl Erickson is the CEO and cofounder of Atomic Object, a software product development company with offices in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. You can learn more about Carl here. This post first ran in Carl's blog, Great Not Big, and is reprinted with the author's permission.
Signup for Email Alerts