In the two years since the SC read down Section 377, many companies have been hiring LGBTQ+ people, but the danger of tokenism and pink washing looms
Parmesh Shahani, author of the recently-released Queeristan and longtime activist for the LGBTQ+ community, encountered an unforgettable kind of tokenism a few years ago. At a corporate event to celebrate Pride, the company had put up a rainbow flag next to its prominently-displayed logo. After the event, I was taking photographs in front of the flag when some managers rushed over and asked me not to post anything on social media, says Shahani. It made me wonder what kind of message the company was sending out to its LGBTQ employees. It was like saying we accept you, but we dont want the world to know.
The incident took place before September 6, 2018 when after a prolonged legal battle the Supreme Court finally read down Section 377 of the IPC and decriminalised homosexuality in the country. The verdict removed all those irrational fears around homosexuality, and unleashed a lot of positive intent among companies to hire people from the community, says Shahani. He hopes his book, a manual of things to do (or not) when hiring queer people, will help.
Shwetambera, who works with the Mumbai-based resource group Humsafar Trust, says: For the first time, people from the LGBTQ community whose sources of income have been decimated by the pandemic are looking for secure, mainstream jobs. Like the Hijra community, for instance, which can no longer depend on begging and sex work, and needs a more regular source of livelihood.
Many companies had already started reaching out to, and hiring, LGBTQ people before 2018. Now that number has increased, since they can do it more freely and without fear of retribution. But they dont always get it right. The multinationals already had robust D&I policies [mostly mandated by their global parent], but we see a growing interest among Indian companies too, says Sinha. So, companies are tweaking policies, and adding infrastructure, to onboard more LGBTQ people. Many of them offer health and insurance cover for the same-gender partner; gender-neutral washrooms on their premises; and monetary and psychological support for gender affirmation procedures (for those keen on the surgery). They also hold extensive sensitisation programmes for the rest of the workforce, particularly the teams the queer person will work with [see box on page 11].
IBM started operations in India in 1992 and since then, we have been doing LGBTQ community inclusion, so we were way ahead of the laws, says Prachi Rastogi, Diversity & Inclusion Leader, IBM India. We have found that the more diverse our surroundings, the more creative our client solutions. Many companies in India are just starting with these gender-inclusive policies. So our employees from the community go over to talk to them about issues and our policies.
Kusuma Krishna, programme manager at the software company Intuit, was hired at the Bangalore RISE event last year. Right from my first day at work, I didnt have to hide anything because my boss already knew about my sexual orientation. My colleagues were also welcoming, says Krishna. Her colleague Karanbir Singh Chhabra (who came out a few years ago), adds: Our leaders are big supporters of diversity. Being inclusive aligns with our companys values.
A lot of organisations are getting behind this, which is great when it comes to the visibility of the community and its issues, says Shwetambera. But many of them actually target the low hanging fruit people who are well-educated and have good experience, even if they are not out. But what about those who actually need to be included? School drop-outs and people who have only ever worked on community-based projects, and dont necessarily have the education or the experience desired by corporate India, even though they may have other skills.
Shwetambera refers specifically to people from the transgender community, who are routinely discriminated against by mainstream society. Two activists from the community in Pune, who say they were approached with job offers from Amazon, were shocked to learn that the pay was a paltry Rs 7,000-8,000 a month. Their argument was that theyre offering us the option of dignified living, says one of the activists (An Amazon spokesperson, however, denies this). A Bangalore-based IT giant recently hired two transgender people as pantry supervisors even though they have over 15 years of experience in HIV interventions, a complex space that requires a plethora of skills. But the company completely discounted this. These skills also need to be acknowledged, says an activist. The mindset of companies needs to shift from good intentions to an insistence on being more inclusive.
Having a representative from the community when onboarding staff, is a start. If the company doesnt have an identified LGBTQ employee, it can bring in a consultant. That wouldve certainly helped Mahek Agarwal, who was Nikhil when she joined a telecom MNC and, a few years later, decided to transition. As she started the hormone replacement therapy, Agarwal found she had to fight for things that would naturally be facilitated for women employees: The right to use the womens washroom or security during the night-drop. My superiors have been supportive, but I still face distancing from male colleagues, she says. My organisation gave me several opportunities for advancement, but I chose to steer clear of leadership roles while I negotiated [the transition].
But now she worries about future prospects. A company she had approached, said they would wait until she got her name change officiated. It was supposed to be an inclusive company, so Im puzzled by this demand. Many transgender people prefer to retain their old name, she says. So when an employee decides to opt for gender reassignment surgery, all the paperwork particularly around things like changed name and a total sensitisation (at least of the immediate team) should be in place at the company. LGBTQ employees, like any other, will leave an organisation if they dont feel welcome. Shahanis advice to all companies grappling with such nuances is simple. If youre not sure about what to do, just ask, he says.
Publicis Sapient: Gender-agnostic insurance for live-in partners; gender reassignment surgery and inclusion of HIV+ people and their PMP medications. We are not driving a numbers-only culture because hiring LGBTQ+ talent has more nuances than others, says D&I director Vieshaka L Dutta.
IBM: Same-gender partner benefits; gender affirmation surgery; voluntary self-identification and training to ensure there is no micro-aggression within the organisation.
SAP Labs: Insurance for gender affirmation surgery; family leave for same-gender partners and a portal for LGBTQ+ staff who are not out yet need support. Candidates are evaluated as per their experience, knowledge and passion, says Sindhu Gangadharan, senior vice president and MD. It is agnostic of gender or sexual orientation.
Natwest Group: Medical cover; gender-neutral washrooms and relocation cost for same-gender partner. Sensitisation includes regular unconscious bias training for all staff. We realised three years ago that our policies need to be more inclusive, says Maneesh Menda, HR head. We went through over 70 policies to ensure this because we want to be the employer of choice for the LGBTQ community.
Contributed by Labonita Ghosh, Sanchita Das, Anupama Bijur and Sudeshna Dutta
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