Sometimes a rainbow sticker can make all the difference in the world. For Bernadette Bennett, a staff advisor working for Chrysler, it gave her the opportunity to ask questions of a fellow employee and opened up the path to her coming out on the job and being part of an equality revolution in corporate America.
It was 1997 and Bennett had been living in Huntsville, Alabama. Though she was in a long term relationship, Bennett was unable to talk about her sweetheart while she was at work, and she had to be careful that no one found out she was a lesbian.
She was working on a project with Chrysler, and when they offered her a chance to move to Michigan she thought it was a great opportunity. “I didn’t really think about it in terms of being gay, I didn’t think I would ever come out at work. I knew it would be different in Michigan because it was where the corporate headquarters was, but mainly I moved because I wanted to stay with Chrysler and work on that project.
“When I finally felt it was okay, it came by chance. I was working on a special project and a guy working with me had a rainbow flag on his binder. He was on the board of People of Diversity and he told me all about it.
“I didn’t have a big connection so I joined right away … I felt absolutely better. It was at the beginning of when we were getting domestic partnership benefits and I felt like I should be involved with that.”
The POD groups grew into GALA, Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Chrysler. Bennett and the corporation’s 57,000 employees worldwide now enjoy protections and equality that only a few major corporations can compete with.
Michael Palese, who works in corporate communications for Chrysler, has also seen the company through its evolution to equality. “I remember when we first adopted the domestic partner benefits we got some letters from groups and that, but we believed it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t an out pouring or anything, but there were negative comments. For the most part people were very happy about it. We were one of the first companies to take that step and they were happy and proud to see an automaker, which is typically a very corporate, conservative industry, being very progressive,” Palese said. “There were good reasons to do that. Business reasons and human reasons.”
For Chrysler it’s about attracting a world-class workforce. For Bennett, being out at work and safe has made her life “so much better.” Bennett now sits on the board of GALA, and works to keep the issue of acceptance alive in company dialogue so that employees know they are in a safe and affirming place to come out if they choose. “We try to have programs for the LGBT employees,” Bennett said. “For instance we brought in a guest speaker for a Stop The Bullying campaign to help in the schools for peoples kids and in the workplace. We coordinate different events. Like we brought in Ruth Ellis, KICK, and Affirmations just last month to discuss ways we can be more involved in the community. We had one hour meetings over one week and a lot of information was gathered. We did Motor City Pride as sponsor, brought vehicles and tried to talk to a lot of people about what Chrysler is doing.”
“Last year we attended Out and Equal where we were an advocate sponsor where we had a big booth. We brought a vehicle, and did networking with other organizations to see what they’re doing, and to help them, and to bring back what we learn.”
Internally Chrysler and GALA are always working to let people know they are welcome and affirmed. “A lot of people may be allies. They may mean well but they may not know what to say or what not to say,” Bennett said. “We’re trying to roll out ‘Lunch-and-Learns’ and working with the Diversity Office to narrow the gap of what we say, so people know how to be respectful.”
Palese further explained the company’s motivations. “We promote diversity wherever we do business. The way we hire and promote is reflective of the culture we value. What we value here is talent. We don’t care about ethnicity or sexual orientation.” He said Chrysler also participated in a large Out For Work event, trying to recruit talent from within the LGBT community.
It is this commitment to diversity and equality that had landed Chrysler back on the Human Rights Campaign Foundations top companies to work for in 2012.
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation identified 190 companies worldwide and only six in Michigan that received 100 percent on the Corporate Equality Index. The Index rates major employers based on LGBT workplace policies and benefits defining the best -in- class practices for LGBT inclusion in the workplace. Chrysler has earned the perfect score six times since the Index was established in 2002.
A perfect score indicates a company provides full parity for domestic partner benefits, not only in basic medical coverage, but in dependent care, retirement and other benefits that affect families’ financial and medical well-being. Chrysler Group’s 100 percent rating also signifies coverage for transgender individuals for medically necessary care — a community the HRC notes has historically been overlooked.
Other Michigan companies to receive the distinction are Ford Motor Company, Herman Miller, Dow Chemical, Whirlpool and Kellogg. Find out more about HRC and the best employers at http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/best-places-to-work-2012. Learn more about diversity at Chrysler at http://www.chryslercareers.com/diversity.html.