FOCUS: Herman Miller one of six companies to make HRC Best of List

By Crystal A. Proxmire

Each year the Human Rights Campaign comes out with their Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality list, and this year the criteria was more stringent, including the requirement for transgender inclusiveness in healthcare coverage.

Despite the new requirements, six Michigan companies were able to get a perfect score: Chrysler LLC in Auburn Hills, Dow Chemical in Midland, Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Herman Miller Inc. in Zeeland, Kellogs Co. in Battle Creek and Whirlpool in Benton Harbor. GM had previously been 100 percent but dropped to a score of 85 out of a potential 100 because of the new healthcare insurance standards.

Rick Westra has been with Herman Miller, the Zeeland-based office furniture manufacturer, for 24 years. The product specialist has seen the company grow and become more diverse, even amid a West Michigan culture that isn't known for its inclusiveness.

"Like many companies years ago, they didn't have benefits. I wasn't out when I first went to work there," he said. "It's been an evolution over the years. I was out to close team members many years ago, but I came out more openly in a diversity class in the mid 1990s. That was our first go-round. At that time Herman Miller recognized the need for diversity and several affinity groups were formed, including a women's group, a black group, a Hispanic group, and of course an LGBT group. It was like you opened the door and we walked through it. I don't think they were expecting it.

"In Zeeland we put up a display in the cafeteria in June of famous LGBT people throughout history. One of the guys had a connection at a printer so we had some great posters; it was just a fabulous display. And it was controversial. A petition went around asking the company to take it down. The management said that we were an established affinity group and they let it stay through the month. But yeah, there were problems. And there still are some people who don't like it.

"Six years ago, senior management recognized that we needed to be welcoming in order to attract the best talent. We formed 'Inclusive Management' teams and asked people 'How do we attract members of your group to work here?'"

Westra said that within 24 hours of being asked to pull together a team of LGBT employees, one was assembled and ready to go. "They gave us surveys and asked us what gay and transgender employees wanted. We told them what we need is benefits, we need to have an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) Statement and we want Herman Miller to make the HRC list.

"We thought it would be an insurmountable mountain, and that we'd end up with months and months of arguments and pushing. But we told them what we wanted, and they said 'ok, here.'"

Herman Miller continues to have LGBT displays in the cafeteria in June, and they sponsor events like West Michigan Pride and the Spring Concert for the West Michigan Men's Chorus. And the company meets all of the criteria to be one of HRC's best companies.

Company spokesperson Mark Schurman is proud of Herman Miller's heritage and history of recognizing the value in employee uniqueness. He shared a clip from a 1986 interview with founder DJ DePree. In it, DePree tells the story of how a worker on the line had died of a heart attack. When he visited the family home, he learned more about the man than he had expected. He said that from that day on he had respect for each employee as an individual.

"DJ DePree had a traditional view of 'labor' and didn't really appreciate employees as people until this profound experience, which caused him to rethink his entire management philosophy," said Schurman.

Clip of DJ DePree

"Inclusiveness and diversity was an important element in this, though that might not have been the terminology of DJ's day. It is evidenced by the people that he surrounded himself with and greatly influenced him thereafter. Although DJ was a devout Baptist, and West Michigan far from diverse in those days, by the 1940s his lead sales executive was Jewish. And among his closest friends and the company's director of design was George Nelson, a publicly avowed atheist.

"Yet DJ and these men, and others like them, had a very warm and close relationship and the greatest respect for one another. They may not have always seen eye to eye on everything, but DJ understood that it didn't preclude close friendship and professional collaboration. That sensibility came to define the Herman Miller culture, as a community of people with shared purpose and values, though we all also have unique life experiences and aspects as individuals.

Westra is now comfortable at work, and remains active in the Inclusiveness Resource Team so that employees know they are not only protected, but welcome. He and his partner enjoy quality health benefits and they are "fortunate that Herman Miller is ahead of the curve."

He adds that work must always be done to affirm feeling welcome.

"Not everyone is out at work, and people don't need to be. There are lots of reasons people choose not to come out at work no matter how welcoming we are. This is Holland and Zeeland, small towns where you might be working on the same line as your parent's next door neighbor and you may feel okay to be out in some places, like work, but aren't yet ready to be out to your parents. It's okay. At least they know that their job is safe whenever they are ready."

The freedom and respect have kept Westra active and engaged in his work community. "As I look back, I remember having those first discussions about the affinity groups, talking about how things were changing, but that we'd never see partner benefits in my lifetime. Never. But here, at least here at Herman Miller, we have done it."

Online:

Find out more about Herman Miller's inclusive business practices at http://www.hermanmiller.com/content/hermanmiller/english/about-us/our-values-in-action/inclusiveness-and-diversity.html.

Learn more about HRC at http://www.hrc.org.

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