July 30, 2020 5:30:20 pm
In 2016, when a transman in Kolkata underwent a gender-confirmation surgery, it took nearly five months for the private sector bank — where he worked — to verify and change his identity proof documents. “The process was long and tedious. And it cost me Rs 2.5 lakh, which is why I believe all organisations, including banking and financial institutions, need greater sensitisation and extend such cover for all employees irrespective of their gender and expression,” he said.
Fortunately, Aditya MK, a transman from Bengaluru, could avail sex re-assignment surgery in 2017 by utilising his company, a leading IT consulting firm’s insurance policy, that covered the cost up to Rs 3 lakh. “I came out to my company at the end of December 2016 around the same time when they started introducing wellness policies that included the trans community. They supported me and I did not face any harassment,” said the 30-year-old who quit to join another firm two months ago.
It is only recently that the corporates have begun to expand their employee welfare schemes, aptly named ‘diversity and inclusion policies’, to include employees from the LGBTQ+ spectrum. In a step forward for the LGBT+ community, such policies extend medical coverage, leave benefits besides establishing gender-neutral washrooms and mandatory sensitisation drives.
While multinationals started or expanded corporate programmes to address concerns of LGBT employees in the workplace in India starting from 2016, a year after homosexuality was decriminalised by the Supreme Court, it is only now that more companies are leaning towards a change that could cascade into something bigger.
Recently, Diageo India rolled out an “enhanced wellness policy” for all employees effective July 2020 regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, including LGBT+.
As part of the company policy, “medical coverage and leave benefits are to be extended to both same sex and opposite-sex domestic partners”. It also provides medical coverage for gender confirmation procedures. Similarly, surrogacy and fertility treatment medical benefits will be made available for all employees. “In the newly enhanced policy, we have revised and expanded the definition of ‘family’ to include ‘same sex’ and ‘live-in’ partners. We want to alleviate unnecessary stress and provide support to the individual and their family through financial and emotional support, thereby providing them an environment where they can thrive and be their best personally and professionally,” Aarif Aziz, chief human resource officer, Diageo India told indianexpress.com.
Hasn’t this been a long time coming? “Change does not happen overnight. For LGBT+ inclusiveness, the change must take place at all levels — individual, family, societal, governance and even at the workplace. Change may be slow but that does not stop us from putting in efforts,” remarked Aziz.
Notably, with the striking down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, to exclude all kinds of adult consensual sexual behaviour, the Supreme Court’s judgment emphasised the fundamental right of homosexual persons to live with dignity, without the stigma attached to their sexual orientation, with equal enjoyment of rights under India’s Constitution, and equal protection under the law. This was later emphasised by the United Nations as well observing that violence and discrimination against the community cannot be “ended by governments alone” in their Standards of Conduct.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein noted in a 2017-tweet that businesses will not only have to meet their human rights responsibilities, “they must become active agents of change”.
L’Oréal India, which is the only FMCG company in the country that has been awarded the advanced EDGE (Economic Dividends for Gender Equality) MOVE level certification for gender equality, has inclusivity policies like medical insurance that covers employees with same sex partners. “Our LGBTQI+ employee base feels respected, valued and entitled to every opportunity and benefit that any other employee would. Our culture allows for equal opportunity and fostering workplaces where all people of every ethnic and social background, every religion, gender, age or disability feel appreciated and valued,” said Roshni Wadhwa, director, human resource, L’Oréal India. Notably, this year, the company launched the Employee Human Rights Policy “with the principle of non-discrimination, particularly for the LGBTQ+ community” and covering aspects like hiring, remuneration, access to training, company benefits and services, promotions, terminations or retirement.
But how do such policies translate into a “more inclusive workplace“? “Workplace inclusiveness is equality, comfort, fairness and joy for all – regardless of who they are. It could be who they are as a demographic or who they are within the firm (core or support functions; senior or junior levels). To us inclusiveness is just that – every person feeling equally free, equally valued and equally respected no matter who they are or where they come from. We hence actively discourage ourselves from undertaking diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives in silos – while special focus is needed; at the same time for us every D&I initiative, culture initiative, anti-harassment initiative is also within the broader unifying umbrella of ‘engaging respectfully’,” said Seema Bansal who leads Boston Consulting Group’s (BCG) Social Impact practice in Asia Pacific, and is a member of the firm’s people and organisation and public sector practices.
She also stressed how it is the “training, sensitisation, communication and dialogue” with the rest of the office – “that is most critical”. “Conversation on biases – conscious and unconscious, training on respect and space are a core part of our D&I efforts,” she added.
Wadhwa also explained some of the practices followed besides workshops. “We conduct regular audits which are both physical as well cultural wherein L’Oréal is evaluated on parameters to determine how accessible it is for employees and what kind of policies and practices we have to enable diversity at work,” she said.
Leveraging methods and channels like film screenings, interactive presentations, workshops, performances, participation in external events, besides their inclusivity policy, global software consultancy ThoughtWorks has begun proactively hiring from the LGBTQ+ community. “This is an incredible time in the evolution of true inclusion at the workplace. In partnership with Periferry, an organisation that works for the empowerment of trans-people, we have launched Prajna, a mentorship program for transgender individuals to support them in career progression and development,” explained Tina Vinod, head, diversity and inclusion, ThoughtWorks. She mentioned how their Gender Affirmation Surgery Policy can be availed by employees “free of cost and takes a 360-degree approach, making sure that everything from logistics, to medical expenses, counselling and mental health is taken care of”.
Organisational and leadership-driven initiatives coupled with sensitisation workshops and PRIDE month celebrations can drive LGBTQ+ inclusion and the nurturing of a safe space for the community, it is believed. “Without a strong cultural foundation, policies and programs will be ineffective as people won’t feel connected to these values,” expressed Ruchi Bhalla, country head, delivery centers, India, and vice president human resources (Asia Pacific), Pitney Bowes.
Despite hailing some of these initiatives as a game-changer, Pawan Dhall, gender and sexuality activist and researcher, is concerned about the minuscule number of employees availing such services. “If the employee avails of the service, tongues may start to wag which becomes a ground for discrimination at many places. This discourages many from opting for them. The onus is, therefore, on the HR department to maintain complete confidentiality in all cases,” he said.
Highlighting that setting a clear policy for inclusion is a strong message, Ambika Sharma, founder and managing director, Pulp Strategy noted that “being inclusive is good business“.
“You don’t have to give up on talent, which is what hiring should be focused on in the first place. Differentiating on grounds of anything else other than talent and potential is just bad business apart from being dated. It’s a very good start, most policies are backed by sensitivity training and strong communication. If done in tandem it is an effective measure. It does take time to change mindsets and thus a responsible HR department would have to closely monitor to ensure that the policy is followed in letter and in spirit. Change takes time, and things are changing slowly and steadily. With open-minded contribution from everyone the change will be quicker,” said Sharma.
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