How Indian Corporates Can Open Doors For the LGBTQ Community

Why does something so personal be a concern in organisation is a natural question many are likely to have

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In India, on September 6 when the LGBTQ community woke up, there was a good feeling. By afternoon, they knew why - they were finally free.

In a historic judgment, India is now “woke”, with the scrapping of Section 377, decriminalizing gay sex. The colours of the rainbow adorned the roads of the country, as members of the LGBTQ community celebrated their victory, and felt they were finally free.

While this is a welcome step, one has to note this is the first step. With the law in their hands, the LGBTQ community can now demand equal rights and one place it starts with is the workplace.

Many companies were already inclusive and it’s now of paramount importance for other corporates to follow suit and welcome the LGBTQ community into a workplace that respects them.

Entrepreneur India spoke to founders and experts from across sectors, as they welcomed the big change and reflected upon how this will transform the workplace dynamics.

A Surreal Change

Announcing the unanimous decision taken by the Supreme Court judges, Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra stated, “Morality cannot be martyred at the altar of social morality. Only Constitutional morality exists in our country.”

He added, “We have to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and we have to respect them for who they are and not ask them to be who they aren’t.”

And it’s this philosophy that will push forward the inclusive India of tomorrow. Parmesh Shahani, Head, Godrej India Culture Lab said that he is overwhelmed and incredibly happy for the LGBTQ community in India. He added mood currently is just surreal. “Not only was it a unanimous five-zero agreement between the judges, even the language of the verdict was beautiful and emotive. Our aim now will be making India truly inclusive,” he said.

The scrapping of this archaic law is a landmark verdict and a great step to ensure individual freedom of choice, believes Kajal Mehta Joshi, Head, Brand Partnerships & Growth, Chtrbox. “While the move calls for nationwide celebration of basic human rights, it also comes as welcome change in the workplace,” she said.

There are also companies that were already inclusive in nature and believe this will lead to more companies joining the force of change. At POPxo, they have always had an inclusive and open culture and have always been strictly against discriminating on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, caste, etc. However, Priyanka Gill, founder and CEO, POPxo believes that this will give the LGBTQ community the right to legal recourse if they are discriminated against in the workplace. “Having a law to protect your rights is a great start, the next step is for organizations and employers to be as open and inclusive as the law,” she said.

Redefining the Workplace Policies

Corporations today are working towards having progressive policies, hints of which were seen within hours of the verdict - from brands and apps showing their solidarity on social media to adding the pride colours to their apps. But it's time to go beyond being just a brand building exercise. 

Shahani points out that while a lot of companies want to promote equality at work they had erroneously believed that Section 377 made inclusive policies illegal. He now believes that after the verdict, the belief will change. “Over the past seven years, we’ve made Godrej into an active participant in LGBTQ diversity and inclusion and are currently working on a 'Transgender employment framework' which we hope will be adopted by many India corporates,” he said.  

HR policies will now have to reflect an open thought process and encourage participation and applications from all walks of life. Nirmala Menon, CEO & Founder, Interweave (provides Diversity and Inclusion consulting, Safe work practices, Workplace diversity, and Inclusion training services), believes that policies will have to be redefined to make them irrespective of their gender, gender identity, expression or sexual orientation. “They must audit their policies to ensure that all the rights and benefits the company provides is equally accessible and covers members of the community as well. This will mean zero tolerance to discrimination/harassment, partner benefits, leave and medical coverage for sex reassignment surgery, etc,” she said.

While India has come into the new picture now, global companies have been working on being inclusive for long. Joshi states that as of 2017, 91% of Fortune 500 companies have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation. “There are many such practices that include protection against discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation and hostility in the workplace. These must be enforced as part of the company HR policies to protect the community,” she said.

Beyond Policies, It’s the Mindset That Needs to Change

While we all cheer and welcome the scrapping of Section 377, what will really make the difference is a change in the thought process of those around us. Menon explained that social constructs are always different in varying degrees than legal ones...while the legal acceptance of sexual orientation is a major step, it will take a while for social mindsets to change. “I hope to see more awareness building in organisations and better acceptance of the community at work. Considering that it has been such an invisible issue for many, conversations around the subject will need to be initiated at work. Why does something so personal be a concern in organisation is a natural question many are likely to have…so helping them reflect on how social acceptance is important for task performance is a sensitisation challenge,” she said.

Menon explained that with growing comfort around it, more "in closet" LGBTQ members will be able to bring their authentic selves to work.

Gill too, agrees. Promoting diversity has to become part of organisation culture, making way to provide mentors, bringing people from different backgrounds and orientation into leadership roles — having people carry out their responsibilities and role well will shift the focus. “We have to encourage hiring managers to ask the question “If this person was of a different sexual orientation, gender, or caste or community, would I still be making the same decision?,” she said.

Companies Need to Build Safe Spaces

Once the policies are in place, companies need to ensure that with awareness there is also acceptance. When it comes to hiring, Joshi believes, that companies need to place importance on hiring the right talent and not put anyone in boxes or give them labels.

To be inclusive, companies have to work towards bringing everyone onto the same platform. Gill explains that one way companies can do this is by actively promoting collaboration across teams, across people. “The more people work together towards a common goal, the more they will understand each other,” said Gill.

Enhanced awareness and sensitization of the challenges of diversity is vital to build inclusive workplaces, believes Menon. The leaders will have to step up and take charge and lead with example. Leadership alignment and visible support is critical to set the tone of acceptance. “This being such a misunderstood and sensitive subject, support must be provided for setting up “Safe Spaces” and support groups or ERGs where members of the community can come together to build their peer network and discuss issues of common interest. Organisations must also make it clear that insensitive language or any form of exclusion or discrimination will be penalized,” said Menon.