Why brands and businesses need to go beyond rainbow colours
When I first moved to India in 2015, most companies were still very cautious about including sex orientation in their diversity programmes and corporate branding. A few pioneers were already working on better inclusion of LGBTQ people, but the majority preferred avoiding the question altogether, even large MNCs with solid LGBTQ friendly policies in other geographies.
The situation was bleak for LGBTQ employees. A 2016 survey reported that 40 percent of the surveyed community was facing harassment at the workplace, and two-third had to deal with homophobic colleagues. In my office of several thousand people, I did not know a single colleague who was openly out.
Things started evolving slowly after September 2018, when the Supreme Court read down Section 377 of the IPC and decriminalised homosexuality. Nowadays companies feel a lot more comfortable openly supporting LGBTQ rights. Each year in June, Pride Month is celebrated with a deluge of social media posts and rainbow-colored corporate logos. But is this enough? The reality is that members of the LGBTQ community still face discrimination and the vast majority choose to hide their true identity at work.
The consequences for businesses are multi-faceted. When a company is perceived as non-inclusive, it struggles to hire and retain members of the LGBTQ community, as well as their allies, especially younger generations. Productivity also suffers. Having to constantly hide one’s identity takes up a lot of time and energy. It can cause various mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, increasing the rate of absenteeism and resignation.
According to social activists, the percentage of the population belonging to the LGBTQ population is at least 10 percent. If 10 percent of your employees are not able to work with peace of mind, what is the impact on your bottom line?
Some companies have taken steps to go further in creating an inclusive workplace and reap the benefits of diversity. The 2021 India Workplace Equality Index highlighted employers who have made significant progress. This includes multinationals like IBM, Google, and HSBC with major Indian companies like Wipro, Myntra, and Tata Steel. Here are a few learnings we can take from their experience and that of other companies around the world:
- Engage with members of the community, listen to their lived experience and recommendations, to better understand and address crucial needs. If employees are not an option, then reach out to consultants and members of LGBTQ support groups and organisations.
- Implement anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies that explicitly mention sexual orientation. Communicate about policies regularly, ensure leadership publicly endorses them, and walk the talks. Establish safe spaces, communication channels, and points of contacts to report issues.
- Educate all employees about diversity, inclusion, and unconscious bias. Pay special attention to HR teams who may have access to confidential information about someone’s identity to avoid accidental outing, intrusive questions or confusion (for example, when a transgender’s person degrees don’t match their gender and name).
- Take casual discrimination seriously. Blatant cases of harassment, bullying, salary, and promotion inequality are of course serious concerns that need to be dealt with. But stereotypes, jokes, slurs, or not respecting one’s pronouns and name create a toxic environment that affects everyone and should not be brushed under the carpet.
- Empower allies through employee support groups, training, and regular interaction with members of the community. Allies are people who are not part of the community but want to support its members. They can be powerful advocates and take away some of the burden from LGBTQ employees, for example, by calling out homophobic or transphobic behaviours in their peers.
- Practice gender neutrality everywhere. It starts with everyday language and the use of neutral pronouns like “they” or neutral terms like “people” or “folks” instead of “ladies and gentlemen” to address a group of people. During company events, invite people to bring their “partner” rather than their “wife” or “husband”. Extend this neutrality to job description, resumes, online application portals, HR onboarding forms etc. Remove gender information if it is not required. And think about having more options than “male” or “female” when it is required. And of course, consider having clearly marked gender-neutral toilets in your office.
- Adapt employee benefits to include everyone, for example, health and life insurance that cover same-sex partners, parental and adoption leave for all genders, women-specific night-shift transportation policies that include non-binary and transgender people, and transgender-friendly health coverage that supports transitioning on a physical and psychological level.
- Support pride events and encourage employees to join pride marches. Participate in specialised job fairs and events to connect with member of the community and encourage them to join your organisation.
- Review your company data regularly for signs of discrimination and adjust your policies accordingly. For example, do you observe a difference in salary levels, promotion recommendations, or performance ratings between LGBTQ people and others? Or are you wondering why LGBTQ-friendly HR policies are not taken advantage of? These could all be the signs of an underlying exclusionary culture issue.
- Encourage LGBTQ role models, mentorship, and reverse mentorship initiatives. But beware of tokenism. When only a few people are openly part of the community, it can become an additional burden when the company systematically turns them into the poster children of diversity and inclusion.
Edited by Teja Lele
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)