With the Supreme Court concluding its hearing on Section 377, a provision in the Indian Penal Code which criminalizes gay sex, organizations must make use of this moment to start a conversation about sexuality and inclusivity at the workplace.

At first thought, it seems to be, at the very least, irrelevant, and, at most, a taboo topic at the workplace. So, do we talk about sexuality at the workplace?

Yes we do, all the time.

Sexuality is embedded in our everyday life and is an important part of our identity. When a straight person invites colleagues to his wedding, or shares anecdotes of children, it is seen as something “normal"; a similar conversation by a gay colleague, however, would be met with unspoken discomfiture. When an organization shies away from talking about sexual orientation and gender identity, its LGBTQ+ employees may feel compelled to stay in the closet. And if LGBTQ+ employees are expected to spend time and energy to “fit in", it costs both the individual and the organization, in terms of productivity, innovation, career progression and retention.

A 2016 study by MINGLE (Mission for Indian Gay & Lesbian Empowerment), an LGBTQ+ advocacy think tank, found that many workplaces in India are not supportive, or even neutral, but rather toxic. According to the survey, 40% of LGBTQ+ employees were subject to harassment at the workplace, two-thirds reported hearing homophobic jokes/comments and 20% faced discrimination from their own manager or human resources department.

So what can organizations do to be inclusive?

Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Learn to include

Most conversations start with “how do we hire LGBTQ+ people?", oblivious to the fact that they are already part of the organization. It is just that they have not come out at work. LGBTQ+ employees, an invisible minority, will feel encouraged to come out only in safe spaces where their careers will not be in jeopardy.

The first step to inclusion should be creating a culture where homophobic jokes and comments are discouraged and open conversation is encouraged.

Visible and affirmative stand

Employers, however, must take more steps to become a welcoming space for LGBTQ+ employees. Here are some ways they can do that:

Create employee resource groups (ERGs). These are employee affinity groups which create a support network and empower employees to be themselves at work. Many multinational corporations and Indian organizations like Tata Steel have LGBTQ+ ERGs.

The leadership sets the tone for the organization. When it talks about LGBTQ+ inclusion, it helps other employees to associate with the ERG without the “stigma of association".

Strong policies which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are critical in creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ employees. These support employees who get bullied at the workplace.

■ Affirmative action to provide insurance coverage to same-sex partners of employees, and for gender affirmation procedures for trans employees, can go a long way in retaining LGBTQ+ talent. Access to all gender/gender-neutral restrooms is also important for transgender employees.

Ensure that the talent acquisition team, as well as allied services like security and housekeeping, are sensitized to trans people. Understanding documentation is necessary because some prospective hires may have education certificates in names that are different from those they are using at the interview.

■ Innovative practices like “Interning with Pride" by Thoughtworks, a technology internship for LGBTQ+ students, can create a space for the organization and the LGBTQ+ community to engage.

While it is necessary to fix the internal culture, this must also be communicated externally. This can be done through the company website and social media posts that celebrate LGBTQ+ inclusion. Companies should engage with the LGBTQ+ community through representation in Pride Marches, participation in LGBTQ+ events, and interaction with non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations working in this space through corporate social responsibility initiatives, etc.

One needs the right intent to figure out the means to inclusion. And remember it takes a consistent and sincere effort to create an inclusive workplace.

Ramkrishna Sinha is a graphics hardware engineer with Intel, an LGBTQ+ activist and creator of the “101 Coming Out Stories from India" blog. The views expressed in this article are personal and not necessarily those of his employer.

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