Pride & prejudice

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | SHALKIE
Published Jan 12, 2020, 12:01 am IST
Updated Jan 12, 2020, 12:49 am IST
The fear of persecution further made it difficult for the employees to report discrimination, disparity, and the harassment faced by them.
 Realising the importance of the sexual minority’s right to self-determination, dignity, and equality, companies and  organisations are  now actively seeking out ways to make workplaces queer-friendly.
  Realising the importance of the sexual minority’s right to self-determination, dignity, and equality, companies and organisations are now actively seeking out ways to make workplaces queer-friendly.

In the inclusivity renaissance of workplaces, Indian companies are creating job opportunities and amending and adopting policies to make their workplace LGBTQI+ friendly

In September 2018, a few days after the historic decriminalisation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that criminalised homosexuality, a Twitter revelation blew the lid off on how toxic work environments had actually been for the LGBTQI+ employees, earlier.  In a tweet that caught fire, a former employee of the information technology giant Tech Mahindra accused the company’s Diversity Officer of discriminating and bullying him on the grounds of his sexual orientation. Calling out the bigotry, he revealed that the accused had often mocked him for being gay, affecting the former’s work productivity and eventually resulting in his resignation from the company. And what was within the two shakes of a lamb’s tail, the company, which had received flak for harbouring a homophobic milieu, fired the executive in question after an internal investigation.

 

Realising the sexual minority’s right to self-determination, dignity, and equality, companies and organisations are now actively seeking out ways to make workplaces queer-friendly. Joining the leagues of Capgemini, Godrej, IBM and many more, the recent company to make headlines is TATA Steel which introduced a new HR policy that allows its LGBTQI+ employees to declare their partners to avail benefits, including medical insurance, health check-ups joint house points, adoption leave, child-care leave, new-born parent leave and integration in the employee-assistance programme.     

Homophobic incidents are ubiquitous in the workplaces of the country that is still predominantly stigmatic and discriminatory towards its LGBTQI+ population.
But this call-for-action was a portent for corporates and organisations, which — with or without the Diversity and Inclusion Policies (D&I) — had failed to provide an inclusive and safe working environment for its LGBTQI+ employees.  “The case of Tech Mahindra is a very public example. He (aggrieved) did not find any redressal within the organisation, nor could he have afforded to go out and report the harassment. Only after the judgment, could he talk about it publicly,” says Ramkrishna Sinha, co-founder of Pride Circle, a consulting organisation working for the inclusion of LGBTQI+ at workplaces.  Fortunately, in a spree of corrective measures, even Tech Mahindra announced 12 weeks of paid adoption leaves for the same-sex couple, among other inclusive policies.

SUPPRESSIVE ROLE OF FEAR
One of the most interesting things that have happened post decriminalisation of Section 377 is that the corporate world has come in big numbers to create employment opportunity and provide support to the LGBTQI+ communities, “This is in sharp contrast to what the situation was before 2018,” affirms Vivek Anand, CEO of Humsafar Trust. Anand, who has helmed one of the country’s oldest and largest NGO advocating the rights of the sexual minorities for the last 25 years, reveals that even though some of the companies were keen on working with the community, they would often be hesitant to not come on to the wrong side of the law. In some cases where the NGO had conducted sensitisation workshops, they have been asked to enter into non-disclosure agreements.

The fear of persecution further made it difficult for the employees to report discrimination, disparity, and the harassment faced by them. Sinha, who identifies himself as a gay man, talks from experience when he says: “While people were suffering and were having issues, they would not feel safe about coming out and talking about it. So this led to companies believing that there were no problems as they didn’t know about the challenges because nobody was talking to them.”

A CASE FOR OPPORTUNITIES
Even as the companies attempt to become more inclusive, they are staring at challenges posed by the inequality in job opportunities. Hence, when Srini Ramaswamy, the co-founder of Pride Circle, realised that there was enough talk but not effective groundwork, he along with Sinha, founded an organisation that provides a platform for those from the community and companies to come together.

While routine sensitising workshops, training sessions, and D&I consultancy have enabled to spread awareness, Pride Circle made an important contribution to increasing the access by organising R.I.S.E – India’s first job fair for the community members – in July last year. “We realised that if one’s job is not secured, then they cannot think of doing more in their life because they would have to fend for their livelihood. And you also realise that a lot of the LGBTQI+ people are either not employed or under-employed. There are also instances where a trans person is paid one-third of other people with the same skills,” elaborates Sinha. The fair held in Bangalore saw 42 community members getting employed for the positions of software developer, HR business partner, executive manager, graphic designer, and creative writer, among others.

According to Anand, such job fairs not only acquaint companies with the talent pool but are also a way of mobilising the community to actively seek job opportunities. He further suggests that the companies need to go beyond run-of-the-mill workshops to sensitise their employees and rather focus on familiarising them. “A lot of time ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ just remain as token words,” he says before illustrating: “For instance, for the transgender communities, one of the strategies that we have with the corporate is that instead of getting them hired directly, we suggest they take them as interns for three or six months. This gives trans people a chance to step into a different environment – the corporate world. In this tenure, you can not only assess their skills but also familiarise with them.”

GETTING THE BASICS RIGHT
From meeting infrastructural needs such as gender-neutral washrooms and a safe space allotted for meet-ups with internal or external counsellors to writing company policies with gender-neutral pronouns, the workplaces are taking gradual steps towards ensuring inclusivity. In this inclusivity renaissance at workplaces, organisations that have been working with the community members for a long time, are playing the crucial role of D&I consultants to the companies.

In fact, Humsafar Trust is in the process of developing an accreditation system for the companies to determine their LGBTQI+ friendliness. “We are setting up a team of two to three people who will come to your organisation, assess your team, review the policy and give recommendations. After this, we will give that company a pink star or a rainbow star. Further, Humsafar Trust will very strongly promote the company on all our platforms and so that the members can seek job opportunities,” reveals Anand.

Giving an illustration of their work, Ramaswamy says, “In cases of an employee going through a gender-reassignment surgery, they would be requiring to take rest thereafter. So, the companies will need to have transition leave policies, and  a lot of times, they are unsure as to where these leaves will fit into and whether they would come under the sick leaves basket.”

Additionally, recommendations about setting up committee and redressal mechanisms to prevent the bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment of the LGBTQI+ workforce is one of the most important ones on the check-list.

Further, Anand believes that with a 65 per cent drop-out rate of trans people from education institutes, companies should support their trans employees by holding capacity building courses that can help them in the long run.

BENEFITS FOR ALL
To make their workplaces LGBTQI+ friendly, companies are also adopting new policies that support the needs of the community members. One of the most crucial tasks include extending health insurance to the partners of the employees. Since same-sex marriage is still not legal in India, employers have crossed the bureaucratic roadblock by encouraging the employees to either nominate or declare their partners to avail of various benefits.

For Sameer Samudra, Customer Support Leader and the Head of the Pride Employees Group at Cummins India, incorporating this policy was in tune with the phrase: ‘Personal is Political’. “We are relying on employees to nominate their domestic partner. In the USA, we are asking for documentation, where we are saying that you need to have the same residential address, but in India, we are not asking that because of the stigmatic social conditions because of which the LGBTQI+ couples don’t get to live together,” explains Samudra. However, in cases of life insurance, if the biological family of the employee contests the nominee’s claim who is not the legal heir, then it becomes a legal case between the family and the nominee.

Samudra, who married Amit Gokhale nine years ago in the USA, further elaborates that benefits that are related to government become challenging for the companies to provide to their LGBTQI+ staff. With his marriage to Gokhale considered null and void in India, Samudra reveals, “We are not married in the eyes of the Indian law. So, I cannot mention my husband in my Provident Fund or cannot even claim the reimbursement for Leave and Travel Allowance (LTA) by mentioning my husband as the dependant.”

Further, some companies such as TCS and TATA Steel are also offering to provide financial assistance for sex-reassignment surgery to their transgender employees.

EDUCATION: A WAY FORWARD
In a survey done by UNESCO in Tamil Nadu, more than a half of the 400 plus surveyed LGBTQI+ youth skipped classes to avoid bullying and one third dropped out of education altogether. The number becomes more inflamed at a national level. “I would say that the biggest challenge for the LGBTQI+ community today is right to Education and Right to Equal Job Opportunities,” says Anand.

With a lack of education adding on to the vulnerabilities of the sexual minority, the chance of getting favourable job opportunities decreases significantly.

“Unless education is there, the equality in job opportunity will become difficult. They are inter-linked. When I say they need skill-building, it’s because they don’t have education, they are already behind the other people,” says Anand.

Hence to truly achieve inclusivity, it becomes our social responsibility to enable an eco-system that would eventually help them bring their best talent and contribute to the growth of the economy.

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