LGBT Awareness in the Indian Workplace

By Sanjay Joshi May 9, 2013

The Delhi High Court passed a landmark judgment in July 2009 decriminalizing same-sex relationships between consenting adults. The passage of this verdict seemed like a mandate for inclusiveness, provoking corporate India to make necessary changes in its diversity agenda.

Christian, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities reacted adversely to the ruling, but the Indian corporate world responded by putting together new HR policies to address various lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues under the rubric of diversity and inclusion.

As the LGBT community grows more visible in corporate India, many companies are realizing the importance of challenging old mindsets, offering open and safe work environments, and ensuring greater opportunities for LGBT professionals. Sensing the needs of the growing gay and lesbian community, India’s first online LGBT podcast, JWT (Jub We Talk) was launched in May 2012 to address vital issues and situations.

Recently, Community Business, a nonprofit corporate social responsibility consultancy, produced a resource guide for employers titled Creating Inclusive Workplaces for LGBT Employees in India. This effort also drew upon the expertise of Mingle (Mission for Indian Gay & Lesbian Empowerment), a leading LGBT advocacy group and received active sponsorship from big multinationals like Goldman Sachs, IBM and Google.

This first-of-its-kind guide offers practical recommendations on how organizations can offer inclusive work environments to marginalized LGBT employees. According to Vanitha Narayanan, managing director, IBM India, “Creating a culture where LGBT employees are valued, empowered to think freely and encouraged to express themselves fully, frees our colleagues to think creatively, producing dramatic and innovative outcomes for our clients.”

LGBT Employees’ Perspective

In a bid to offer an employee perspective, Mingle successfully completed its first annual LGBT Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Survey in 2012. The survey covered 455 LGBT professionals from 17 top companies (in finance, software and IT services, and engineering) out of which 65 percent reported themselves as gay men, 25 percent lesbian and 10 percent bisexual. One-third of participants alluded to workplace harassment and 80 percent divulged hearing homophobic comments in their offices. More positively, the survey found that open LGBT professionals fared better than closeted workers in this regard.

As many as 90 percent of survey participants responded that the presence of diversity and inclusion policies was a factor in their decision to join a company.

Various companies including Google, Infosys and Goldman Sachs have undertaken tangible initiatives for their LGBT employees in India. Interestingly, IBM as early as 1984 had included sexual orientation in its manager’s handbook and later covered LGBTs in their equal opportunity policy. The company has already made an effective move by setting up EAGLE (Employee Alliance for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Empowerment), a networking group that aims to offer reverse mentoring benefits to senior employees on diverse issues ranging from alternate sexuality to career growth.

IGLU, or Infosys Gay Lesbian employees and You, is an initiative that creates a respectful and safe work environment for LGBT workers by conducting awareness programs and exclusive events to foster a spirit of inclusion. Similarly, Google and Goldman Sachs have set up LGBT networks in India. Recently JPMorgan Chase took a radical step by including “not specified” as a third option in the gender column in recruitment forms while Wipro Technologies decided to have “I do not wish to specify” and “Others” as options, in order to address a wider set of talented applicants in their Bangalore and Mumbai offices.

What Lies Ahead?

Admittedly, the task of hiring and managing LGBT workers presents additional challenges for managers and employers, especially when the Indian ethos is largely shaped and nurtured by religion and customs.

Indian HR practices, particularly in the IT sector, are undergoing a progressive change to cater to the needs of the LGBT population, especially as 90 percent of the revenue and clientele of the IT sector come from Europe and the United States.

In addition to progressive HR policies, the importance of having LGBT role models can hardly be downplayed. As LGBT workers in India seek to resolve issues related to their sexual orientation, they are helped tremendously when high-level corporate leaders come out of the closet and inspire confidence in the community. Apple CEO Tim Cook has topped Out magazine’s Power 50 list for the third straight year and media baron David Geffen continues to motivate employees at all levels.

The value of building a positive, discrimination-free and safe work climate for the Indian LGBT community is immense and far-reaching. The nascent, but ongoing efforts to end the specter of employment discrimination via changes in legislation are poised to contribute in attracting and retaining the best talent.

Sanjay Joshi is editor, SHRM India.

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