Sumangali Balakrishna greets you as you enter The Bohemian House, a co-working space that opened earlier this year in Bengaluru. It offers rental discounts to those who employ people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community. The 35-year-old transgender woman is the administrative executive, whose presence at the front desk only serves to reinforce the organisation’s inclusive agenda — “respectful employment for all”.
Cosmetic major L’Oreal India has been doing this for many years. Last year, the company’s insurance provider refused to extend medical cover to the partners of its LGBTQ employees, citing the colonial-era Section 377, which criminalised homosexuality.
After the Supreme Court read down that law on September 6, L’Oreal put out a new insurance policy that replaced the word “spouse” with “partner”, allowing LGBTQ employees to claim medical benefits for their partners. Godrej and IBM India are among the other corporate entities that offer medical cover to partners of LGBTQ employees, apart from inclusive child adoption and leave policies.
Though thousands of companies in India continue to discriminate against LGBTQ people by not accepting same-sex or similar relationships while giving benefits to employees’ spouses, some corporate entities are changing track -- and with reason.
The country is home to more than 55 million LGBTQ adults, according to OutNow Consulting, an LGBTQ marketing agency — and Indian companies cannot afford to ignore them anymore, both as a market and as a talent pool. A 2016 World Bank report pegged India’s GDP loss due to homophobia (caused by factors such as lost wages and health costs) at nearly $32 billion, or 1.7 per cent. A UNAIDS study the following year estimated the annual global cost at $100 billion. India Inc would certainly want to plug this loss without wasting time.
Rich talent pool
Roshni Wadhwa, human resources director at L’Oreal India, says diversity is not an option but business imperative at her company. “Our purpose is beauty for all — products that serve the needs of people from diverse backgrounds, gender and orientations.” So her workforce, too, should necessarily reflect that diversity in order to be effective, she reasons.
L’Oreal supports the UN Global LGBTI Standards of Conduct for Business, which calls on businesses to become active agents of change to achieve equality for the community.
Many Indian companies have been taking steps to turn LGBTQ-inclusive over the past 10 years, long before the court stuck down Section 377, says Parmesh Shahani, head of Godrej India Culture Lab, gay activist and author of Gay Bombay . “The pace of change has picked up, especially in the last two years,” he says.
The Lalit Group of Hotels, Tata Group, Lupin Laboratories, VIP Industries, Dr Reddy’s and Infosys are among the homegrown companies that practise inclusive hiring.
While some companies that hire LGBTQs provide a third option in the gender column in all application forms, others such as Dell, Infosys and HCL have dropped the gender column altogether. This is the first step in letting members of the LGBTQ community know that they are welcome in the organisation.
The inherent advantages for business are clear to see, says Shahani. A company that promotes diversity will encourage its workers to be themselves. “Otherwise, you spend a lot of time hiding who you are, hindering productivity.”
A 2016 Credit Suisse report found that companies with LGBTQ diversity outperform the rest. The reasons are obvious to Chaitanya N Sreenivas, vice-president and HR head for IBM India and South Asia: “When people come together regardless of their orientation, a lot of diverse ideas flow in. And diversity brings innovation.”
IBM was an early mover in enforcing LGBTQ workplace equality. In 1984, it included sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy, and in 1995 it established an LGBT executive taskforce. Infosys’s Gay and Lesbian Employee Union (IGLU), launched in 2011, works towards creating a safe, respectful and inclusive work environment for LGBTQs.
Not many Indian companies, however, have a basic LGBTQ inclusive policy in place. Was the criminalisation law to blame?
Shahani doesn’t believe so. “Section 377 was never a deterrent for Indian companies as it did not criminalise LGBT identity [the law was against gay sex]. So initiatives to promote inclusiveness did not entail any legal risk for the companies. Yet, a majority shied away from it,” he says.
Refusing to hold corporate culture alone responsible for this, Sanjay Lakhotia, co-founder of HR consultancy Noble House, blames it on the prevailing mindset in society. “Companies follow societal norms. When we as a society begin to accept people with different orientations or gender, companies will follow suit,” he says.
Close on the heels of the court victory for the LGBTQ community, an instance of homophobia in corporate corridors shook India. Former Tech Mahindra employee Gaurav Probir Pramanik had, on Twitter, alleged that he had been constantly mocked for his “effeminate behaviour” by the then global head of training at the company’s Business Services Group, whose role involved “building leadership and fostering diversity and inclusion at the workplace”.
M&M Chairman Anand Mahindra took to Twitter and assured Pramanik that his complaint would be thoroughly investigated. “We remain committed to supporting and promoting a diverse workforce at TechM,” he said. The former global head of training was subsequently fired.
Pramanik’s is certainly not an isolated case. While he complained about it openly, naming the senior who mocked him, many others continue to suffer in silence. Their suffering has been highlighted by various surveys.
Advocacy group Mingle’s Indian LGBT Workplace Climate Survey 2016, for instance, found that one in five LGBTs faced discrimination by their managers and two-thirds reported facing homophobic comments.
Sumangali encountered this even before taking up a job. She recounts running from pillar to post, with her diploma in computer science in hand, but nobody was willing to employ her. “At walk-in interviews, they would refuse to even meet me. And in a government-run ITI, I was told I would ‘vitiate the work atmosphere’. I had lost all hope, until I finally got a job with The Bohemian House through an NGO,” she says.
This antipathy towards LGBTQ is especially puzzling in a country rich with cultural references to gender fluidity.
From Shikhandi, a transgender, in the Mahabharata to Lord Harihara, the fused representation of Vishnu and Shiva, and Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous form of Shiva and Parvati — religious lore offers several examples. The country’s history is no different. About 700 years ago, the eunuch Malik Kafur was one of the most intrepid slave-generals in medieval India, winning almost every campaign he led for Alauddin Khilji, the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate.
“Section 377 was a British relic. As a society, we were much more open to people with different orientation in the past and, as we go back to our roots, corporates will have to follow,” says Lakhotia.
But drafting inclusive company policies is perhaps way easier than creating a cultural change. Once the policies are in place, the next step would be to create an ethos of inclusiveness. “There must be a culture of conversation around LGBTQ. It should not remain just on paper,” Shahani says.
L’Oreal’s Break the Silence campaign is a step in that direction, generating awareness about workplace inclusivity. IBM India has its EAGLE (Employee Alliance for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Empowerment), which works to create awareness, sensitisation and peer support.
Interweave Consulting, which advises companies on issues of gender diversity, is seeing a growing demand for its workshops on employee sensitisation, says its founder and CEO Nirmala Menon. It has also created an e-learning module that teaches employees ways in which they can be an ally to their LGBTQ colleagues and even help them come out, if they so wish.
She also stresses on the need for policies geared towards meeting the specific needs of the community. For instance, for transgenders, the insurance must cover gender change surgery, she says.
Besides actively recruiting LGBT people, companies should come forward to sponsor LGBT initiatives and events to build awareness about their inclusive policies, says Shahani. “There are enough college groups and social groups of queer people, and companies can reach out to them and other NGOs for hiring.”
All that corporate India needs to do is give LGBTQs a fair change, because talent cannot be determined by sexual orientation, argues Sumangali.
“Without hiring me, how can you conclude that I will adversely impact the work culture? If I don’t meet your expectations, you can fire me, but at least give me a chance,” she says.