OUT @ WORK: A guide for LGBT Indians at the workplace
By Udayan Dhar
Being openly LGBT in India is still a tough deal. While many of us are now willing to confide about our sexuality or gender identity to our friends and family, coming out at the workplace is still a tricky matter. Here are a few dos and don’ts on how to deal with these issues in your office.
BEFORE YOU JOIN:
Check for the company’s anti-harassment policies
Most major companies have clear anti-harassment policies for protecting their employees against discrimination, etc. Check with the HR department on the company’s anti-harassment policy, and ensure that sexual orientation is on the list as well. In India, most major MNCs like Microsoft, Google, IBM, Goldman Sachs, Bain & Company, RBS, JP Morgan, Cisco, Citibank, etc. and even some Indian firms such as Wipro, TCS, Infosys, Mindtree have sexual orientation on their anti-harassment policy. Gender identity is still not covered by many of them.
What does the anti-harassment policy mean?
Having sexual orientation/gender identity on the company’s anti-harassment policy means that you are protected against overt/covert discrimination/abuse/harassment for being LGBT. You have the right to report your colleagues/managers to the relevant HR authorities if you feel you’re being targeted because of your sexual orientation/gender identity. The policy is also supposed to protect you against any backlash for making such a complaint. Needless to say, given an option always chose an organization that has the necessary institutional protections in the form of an anti-harassment policy.
AFTER YOU JOIN:
Should you be open about being LGBT?
It depends on a number of factors such as the company’s policies on LGBT employees, the general work environment, the level of awareness among colleagues and local factors such as religion, culture, etc. Generally, in multinational firms that have clearly defined anti-harassment polices to protect LGBT employees and which are located in the metropolitan cities, it is relatively safe to be openly LGBT.
However, in the absence of any anti-harassment policies, one will have to exercise caution and discretion before confiding to colleagues about their alternative sexual orientation/gender identity. Generally, such organizations are not likely to have an LGBT friendly work environment, or any level of awareness on the issue.
Are there any benefits to Coming Out at the Workplace?
Research by Mingle has shown that openly gay employees- as compared to their closeted counterparts- have greater trust in their employers, are more likely to have entrepreneurial aims in the future, have greater satisfaction with their rate of promotion, feel more loyal to their organization and are more likely to continue with the same company for a greater period of time. These obviously mean that honest and open relationships at the workplace are ultimately good for your career as well.
Apart from the professional benefits as mentioned above, coming out helps you to lead a more honest and open life, form closer relationships with your colleagues, reduces the stress of trying to hide your identity, increases your connectivity with other LGBT people at the workplace, makes you part of the vibrant and supporting community of similar people, helps bring about a positive change in your workplace surroundings by dispelling myths about LGBT people, and also makes you a role model to younger and closeted LGBT employees.
When is a good time to come out?
As among your family and friends, even within your professional circle there is no one-size-fits-all solution to coming out. A general advice would be to gauge the workplace environment with respect to LGBT employees- if there are any openly gay employees in your office, whether they face any stigma/discrimination, whether homophobic comments/jokes are passed around, etc. Once you become familiar and friendly with some of your colleagues, and you’re sure that they’e open minded enough, it may be safe to tell them you’re LGBT.
How to find a support structure within the organization?
Many companies have employee resource groups (ERGs) or affinity groups for minority employees such as LGBTs. Examples of these are GS India LGBT Network (Goldman Sachs) and EAGLE (IBM). These ERGs provide a safe and healthy platform for LGBT and straight employees to communicate and engage on the issues of sexuality and gender identity. By signing up for the local chapter of your company’s LGBT ERG, you can immediately gain access to a whole network of LGBT and allied employees within the organization, with whom you can safely discuss your concerns/issues if any. Most companies do not publicly mention the names of all members of the ERG (apart from the core members), hence you have the choice to remain an unlisted member as well.
In case, there is no local chapter of your company’s LGBT ERG in your Indian office, get in touch with the local HR department, as well as the global chapter of the ERG to find out how you can set up a local chapter as well. Ofcourse, for this you and some other LGBT employees in your office will have to take a visible initiative, but generally a company that has an effective global network of LGBT employees will ensure that you can safely form a local chapter and not face any discrimination as a result.
It is also a good practice to identify a mentor- who can be a senior LGBT employee within the organization early on in your career, who can guide you through the initial period of confusion and lack of familiarity. Such a mentor/guide can be a source of psychological and professional support during both positive and negative experiences within the organization. After spending a few years in the company, make sure that you’re also in a position to be a mentor to another new LGBT hire at your workplace.
DEALING WITH HARASSMENT:
How does one react to homophobic abuse/discrimination/harassment at the workplace?
Harassment can constitute anything from verbal and physical abuse, exclusion from team events, to discrimination during work allocations, promotions, sexual harassment, etc. Note that harassment can come from all levels- managers, colleagues and even juniors. Suppliers, vendors and customers can also be the source of homophobic harassment at the workplace. In many cases, such harassment are a result of ignorance on LGBT issues, and can be sorted out at the individual level by engaging with the person you feel is harassing you. In the process feel free to take help and guidance from your friends/colleagues/mentor at the workplace.
For more serious cases of harassment, especially where managers are involved, and you feel cornered, you may need to make use of the company’s grievance redressal mechanism. However, in all such cases, ensure that you have concrete grounds for alleging harassment/discrimination, such as recorded homophobic statements, a denied promotion immediately after coming out where no other reason for denial is apparent, etc. Generally in all such cases, the perception of harassment is given more importance than the intent to harass. So, in case you feel genuinely harassed or discriminated against because of the fact that you’re openly LGBT, feel free to talk about it with your HR manager during the grievance redressal meeting.
Take note that during such redressal proceedings, it is easy for your manager (who has been harassing you) to prove that his/her actions are purely work related. Therefore one must be absolutely certain that their professional records are as per company’s expectations, else all anti-harassment proceedings may hit a dead end.
A general advice:
While it is important to stand up effectively and at the right time against homophobic/transphobic abuse, we must also remember that being LGBT is only a part of who we are as an individual- whether at home, or at the workplace. Often perceived harassment overwhelms any real harassment simply because of the baggage of our fears (even though they may be based on real negative experiences in the past). Concentrate on building honest and meaningful relationships with both LGBT and straight people at work. At the end of the day, no company or manager would want to let go of a talented and dedicated employee who gets along well with his/her colleagues.
(Udayan is the Corporate Diversity Consultant at Mingle and has been engaging with businesses in Bangalore and Mumbai on issues related to LGBT Inclusion)