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Opinion | The advent of inclusive family welfare policies

Several corporations have decided to extend welfare benefits to their employees’ partners regardless of their marital status and sexual orientation. The idea deserves to catch on

For some time now, an inclusive society has been at risk of turning into just another shibboleth—something that everyone is in favour of, but few take as a categorical imperative to be acted upon. Change, however, has been in the air as well. Last year, the Supreme Court quashed a colonial-era law that criminalized homosexuality. Long overdue though it was, it seems to have given fresh wind to the principle that nobody should suffer any form of discrimination on the basis of identity, be it a person’s sexual orientation or any other social marker. That the corporate world should embrace this precept is of singular importance for the simple reason that it claims to place a premium on “best global practices". Citigroup Inc. is the latest to declare a shift in policy that would extend its family-welfare benefits to an employee’s partner regardless of gender and marital status. A live-in of any sex would thus be eligible for the company’s health insurance coverage, relocation expense claims and so on. Accenture and IBM, among others, have had such a policy in place, and it’s about time that it becomes the norm across all industries in the formal sector.

Of course, a change on paper does not amount to a change in practice—at least not right away. Consider the complications. Live-in relationships are okay under Indian law, as recent precedents have established, so long as both partners are consenting adults, even if their rights and obligations remain unclear to others. While this is only to be expected of a cohabitation arrangement that does not feature marriage and the public avowals that usually go with it, it could perhaps also result in negligent behaviour in some cases: Since live-ins typically expect no company benefits, the idea being so novel, they may remain unaware of these and their partners may fail to sign them up for the same. Yet, the far bigger foreseeable problem would be the fear of office gossip. This applies especially to same-sex alliances. Such marriages are not recognized in India, office cultures are usually a slice of the larger society from which recruitment is done, and so long as social attitudes do not assure same-sex couples the comfort they need to “emerge from the closet", as it were, employees may not feel confident enough to reveal their private life choices to their employers. Making unconventional relationships official for the sake of company records is not as easy as it sounds, given that the lifting of a legal prohibition (in the case of men) is not the same as public approval, and it’s not clear if the gap is closing.

But then again, maybe that is the whole point. By allowing for live-ins of either gender to be signed up for family benefits, companies signal a neutrality that encourages their staff to put aside their qualms and openly claim them. This in itself could set new standards of what’s considered usual, which would be much of the battle of inclusion won. Once an open culture takes hold in corporate offices, it would surely influence the rest of society in time to come. Playing change agent on this issue may or may not win immediate board approval, even if included as part of a firm’s corporate social responsibility agenda, but every business leader knows that employee satisfaction counts. Caring for the loved ones of those who work for the company is all it takes. It’s only rational for human resource policies to acknowledge as much.

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