Employers in India Expand Inclusion to Cover LGBTQ Employees

By Shefali Anand July 14, 2020
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​Many companies in India are increasing their recruiting of LGBTQ employees as they seek to create a more inclusive workplace, say HR professionals across the country.

"It makes eminent business sense for us to have a diverse workforce," said Mehernosh Mehta, CHRO of Mahindra Logistics, a transport and logistics provider. "Organizations today need to tap into every talent pool to augment the talent in the organization."    

In June, Mahindra Logistics launched its first policy for hiring and retaining lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning and/or queer (LGBTQ) people. The launch was timed with Pride Month, which is celebrated globally to promote pride among the LGBTQ community.

In India, companies have become more open to LGBTQ employees since 2018, after the country's highest court effectively abolished a colonial-era law that criminalized same-sex relations. Since the change in law, "there are loads of companies that have gone on their inclusion journey," said Parmesh Shahani, author of Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion at the Indian Workplace, to be released this year.

Shahani also heads Godrej India Culture Lab, an experimental space in Mumbai that hosts events on LGBTQ issues. He said he has been getting calls from more companies that want to know how to make their organization more LGBTQ-friendly.

"Earlier, the argument for inclusion was very much to do it as some kind of feel-good activity," Shahani said. "Now people are recognizing that inclusion is fundamental to a company's bottom line."

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Experts say that not only does diversity encourage innovation, it also helps attract the best and brightest talent.

"The Millennial population wants to work with an organization that is inclusive," said Shefali Kohli, group head of rewards, diversity and people productivity at Godrej Group, headquartered in Mumbai. Godrej is one of the first companies in India to actively push for greater inclusion, and its efforts have increased in recent years.

Last year, Godrej launched Project Rainbow, a focused hiring platform for LGBTQ candidates who want to apply for internships or full-time employment positions at the company. Godrej participated in two job fairs last year—the first of their kind in India—that catered exclusively to the LGBTQ community.

The top leadership at Godrej, led by Nisaba Godrej, managing director of consumer products, frequently talks about LGBTQ issues in town hall meetings, through internal communications and on other platforms. Experts say backing from senior leadership is critical to the success of any company inclusion program.

The Mahindra Group has also created a spectrum of diversity goals, which was a big driver behind the creation of its new LGBTQ policy, said Mehta.

Policy Changes

The path to inclusivity begins with companies changing their policies or creating new ones in order to provide a safe environment for LGBTQ employees and to extend them the same benefits as all other employees. This involves, among other changes, replacing the word "spouse" with "partner" in benefits policies.

Medical insurance coverage, for instance, offered by companies like Godrej and Mahindra Logistics now cover same-sex partners as it would other family members of the employee. Also, LGBTQ employees can take advantage of adoption leave, compassionate or bereavement leave for their same-sex partner, and counseling services provided by the companies.

Mahindra Logistics has widened the scope of its existing sexual-harassment-prevention policy to include any sexual harassment reported by an LGBTQ employee. And in 2018, Godrej introduced a gender affirmation policy by which the company offers to cover the costs of hormone replacement therapy or surgery for transgender employees. Similarly, Publicis Sapient, a digital transformation company, covers gender reaffirmation surgery under its medical insurance policy in India. 

Attitude Changes

While policy changes are important, experts say the bigger challenge is changing the attitudes of existing employees and managers to help them become more welcoming of LGBTQ workers.

At Essar Group, a conglomerate with interests in construction and energy, Kaustubh Sonalkar has been preparing the organization for more than a year to hire its first transgender employees, whom he hopes to onboard this year.

"How do you make your leadership ready to welcome these employees at work?" asked Sonalkar, who oversees HR. One way, he said, is to organize training sessions. He has also tried to create an emotional connection. For instance, last year Essar invited its staff to watch a performance by Dancing Queens, a transgender troupe who use dance to share their life stories and hardships.

"When they performed, 60 percent to 70 percent of the people in the audience were crying," said Sonalkar. That went a long way in dismantling stereotypes, he said.  

At Publicis Sapient, a film screening was organized, and training classes and follow-up sessions have been held over many months to give leaders and HR staff sustained exposure to LGBTQ issues. "Now my hiring team and leaders are talking about hiring [LGBTQ employees]," said Vieshaka Dutta, the firm's director of inclusion and diversity. Dutta has also tried to create allies within the organization through mentorship, she said.

Publicis Sapient sponsors a program called Leading with Pride, a leadership development program for people from the LGBTQ community. The program participants are not employees of Publicis Sapient, but they are assigned mentors from among Publicis Sapient staff.

"I have so many people who have said they want to sign up to be mentors," said Dutta. "Our folks have become very, very strong allies," she said.

Customization and Support

Sometimes it may require an extra effort to bring in diverse staff.

For instance, Kohli of Godrej is trying to organize a shift of only transgender employees at one of its factories. For this, she is working with a local nonprofit organization and her company's corporate-social-responsibility team to find potential employees and train them. "This needs experimentation; this needs new kinds of thinking," said Kohli, who shared that her company created two gender neutral washrooms at its headquarters in Mumbai last year.

To ensure that LGBTQ staff can thrive at the company, it's important to provide support, Kohli said, especially by checking that everyone is on board with the vision of nondiscrimination. "How are we ensuring that biases are kept in check?" she said. "We act on each and every story that we hear and is escalated to us." 

Publicis Sapient and many other technology companies around the world have created employee resource groups, which act as an informal support system, dedicated to LGBTQ concerns. Like-minded employees and allies come together within these groups to organize events, share information, create awareness and make people feel at home, said Dutta.

"It's a better way of building culture rather than pushing it top down," she said.

Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.

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