In Focus 19th September, 2016

Do Ask Do Tell.

The mail floated around the office welcoming me to one of the most aggressive and competitive workplaces in the world and all I could focus on were the words written in bold letters in the organizational announcement that highlighted my research dissertation on LGBT Employees. The word LGBT seemed less of an acronym and more of a reason for me to get bad ratings at the end of the year, being bullied and harassed by my heterosexist colleagues or become the focus of homophobic jokes shared on the office WhatsApp group. Was it a good decision to share these details so candidly with over 1000 employees? Shouldn’t I have just waited for them to figure out on their own and then eventually bombard me with the subtle homophobia and sexism that I had grown up with?

I was accustomed to physical assault, abusive schoolmates, name calling, bullying and even those silent treatments showered upon you as you initiate into a more sophisticated work environments where people eat with their mouths closed but never forget to crack those “fag” jokes. As you grow up in a nation with its own set of moralities guiding you from your commode to your bed you become accustomed, not to speak up and try to hide your true self, living in self-denial. I see plenty of talented and erudite gay men in the industry trying to juggle their careers and moonlighting as gay men in parties, living these dual lives that I find very intriguing. I used to wonder if they suffer from some sort of sexual/social schizophrenia where they create these alter-egos that gyrate on EDM in night clubs and transforms into masculine stiff honchos in the morning. I dealt with some of these questions as I researched the state of LGBT employees in Indian firms.

The rights of women, religious and caste minorities and people with alternate sexuality have not really been addressed in the occasional efforts of ringing in diverse workforce in organizations. The case of LGBT employees is most peculiar in this situation wherein most organisations including mine claim the lack of government’s affirmative action and hostile laws of the nation as major bottlenecks that have halted any effort in this regard. Even if we count the nascent steps taken in this area we have seen only halfhearted efforts in bridging the information gap, awareness programs about these issues or simply holding tokenistic panel discussions but what is missing is a hard core corporate will, to take it up as a major initiative.

As the world becomes more globalized and the organizations gear up to face new challenges it is an imperative that they go ahead with more eclectic and diverse force and be able to create a niche presence for themselves by exploiting the advantage they have in terms of a diverse workforce.

Discrimination and Harassment

Harassment based on sexual orientation and sexual identity can have impact on hiring choices and decisions, job assignment, compensation and promotion. A recent development to prevent such form of exploitation has been the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in USA. India has also witnessed debates on workplace harassment as part of Vishakha Guidelines of 1997 and Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, and are seen as positive moves towards making the workspace a safe space for all. But the case for an LGBT employee is curious, in a legal environment where homosexuality is criminal, a widely heteronormative patriarchal society and social stigma attached to homosexuality or sexual transgression. The protection of these workers and identifying their rights at workspace is essential yet a precarious task to begin with. The question is how the state can recognize rights of a workforce whose identity is considered to be criminal and how then can we provide the citizen the safety guaranteed under the constitution.

A lot of times the problems faced by them are unreported as the society that fails to assimilate them in the mainstream forces them to live under false identity and they fear discrimination and remain isolated in closet. “According to a study by Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, 54% of LGBT employees who are not open to anyone at work report lying about their personal lives.”(Banerji, Burns and Vernon, 2012), this has a dramatic impact on productivity. “According to Stonewall, an organisation working for equality and justice for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in the UK, ‘concealing sexual orientation at work reduces productivity by up to 30 per cent. “(Banerji, Burns and Vernon, 2012).

Some organizations have come forward to support the rights of the community and provide them their just share in the growth story and have created mechanisms to allow their voices to be heard and give them a secure environment to be who they want to be. Leading organizations like HSBC, Google, Infosys, Disney, Apple have created employee resource groups, LGBT mentoring and counselling programs and employee networks to give them a platform to express themselves and these fora also used to instill organization’s mission, vision and values in the employees and direct their personal growth to be aligned with the organization’s growth.

“In India, workplace attitudes towards employees’ sexual orientation or gender identity has typically followed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” pattern. These issues have largely been seen as private, best left out of the workplace. However, the Indian LGBT community has become more emboldened in recent years, with organisations such as Mingle (Mission for Indian Gay & Lesbian Empowerment) and the Equal India Alliance calling for greater equality for LGBT individuals. This influence is beginning to be felt in the workplace too.” (Banerji, Burns and Vernon,2012)

The Predicament of LGBT community

In the Indian context the problem takes a more ugly turn. The family values prevailing in the society owing to medieval standards of culture and puritanism has made the lives of the sexually marginalized even more adverse. And what creates a more apathetic situation is the repealing of Delhi High Court, 2009 Judgment on decriminalization of gay sex by the Supreme Court on 11 December 2013. The judgment reinstated the medieval Victorian law banning homosexuality and the response of Justice G. S. Sanghvi and Justice Mukhopadhyay was that “”In view of the above discussion, we hold that Section 377 IPC does not suffer from the vice of unconstitutionality and the declaration made by the Division Bench of the High court is legally unsustainable.”(Lawyers Collective, 2013). The judges also expressed the point that they had never met a LGBT person in their life. What seems to be important is the latter part of their observation that is very important to note. Such a statement points out at a larger problem that there is a paucity for legislation for support of LGBT community because they are visibly absent and hence due to lack of any voice in their support they fail to lobby their interests in these constitutional institutions. This can be partially correct and hence in order to create any legislative or procedural action in support of the community we need to create an environment that supports their identity and gives them the safety to come out and ask for their rights.

The society has evolved media, pop culture, literature, music seems to be accommodating these identities and a large part of Gen Y is flexible and moreover promotes these sub-cultures. The organizations which want to tap a new age talent pool have pay cognizance to this new socially interactive and sensitive pool and should be able to respond to their changing belief system and ethics.

First world countries have seen remarkable growth in women, African American, Hispanics and LGBT employees becoming part of mainstream business excellence teams that have ensured higher returns and created a better growth trajectory for the organization. Hence the measure of including the concerns and rights of the communities has become indispensable.

Organizations and LGBT employees

Organizations have begun to show a special interest in diversity and inclusion at workplace and have taken actions to curb any form of workplace discrimination or harassment. The organizations have been able to create an inclusive atmosphere for its employees and with the help of daily seminars, workshops, group therapy and sessions and creating employee resource network have managed to materialize these efforts. “The reason, according to Nirmala Menon, CEO, Interweave Consultants, is changing mind-sets at multinational companies (MNCs). “Companies are waking up to the reality that LGBTs exist among their workforce and they shouldn’t be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation,” says Menon”(The Telegraph, July 31, 2011). Firms like Fidelity, HSBC Bank, Texas Instruments etc. have realized the importance to overcome workplace discrimination in order to increase productivity and boost employee morale.

The road seems long and the recent developments are promising but until we create safe and inclusive spaces wherein employees like me do not panic at the sight of the LGBT acronym being associated with us, we haven’t done enough.

This post includes excerpts on from Research Paper: (Do Ask, Do Tell, Disclosure and Discrimination: Study of Challenges faced by LGBT employees at Workplace, 2016, Tata Institute of Social Sciences)

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