“The concept of inclusiveness simply isn’t prevalent in Indian society. When there are so many barriers to equality based on gender, religion, and disability, what can the LGBTQI+ community expect?” rues Felix, a volunteer at Orinam, a collective of LGBTQI+ people and allies based in Chennai. “This is the mentality that we bring to the workforce,” he says.
Sunday saw Chennai’s 9th Rainbow Pride March, and the Tamil Nadu Rainbow Coalition has put forth several demands this year - key components include that the state government take cognizance of the Supreme Court’s NALSA judgement, and that “all private and public sector organizations [...] ensure workplace equality, end stigma and discrimination, and include sexual orientation and gender identity awareness in diversity training for staff and management.”
Given the diversity conversation that’s taking place throughout the world, it seems like the corporate sector in India is finally waking up to the need for inclusion.
“LGBTQI+ issues are gaining visibility in India, and corporates have started thinking about the LGBTQI+ community in terms of diversity,” says Shubha Chacko of the Solidarity Foundation, which provides support to sex workers and sexual minorities by offering fellowships and grants.
This increased awareness, she believes, has largely been fuelled by the MNCs that have already taken steps towards inclusiveness in other countries, but adds that several Indian companies, most notably Godrej, have led the charge nationally.
Understanding the challenges
There remain barriers the corporates see towards inclusion, the foremost being the attitude of Indian society towards the LGBTQI+ community.
“Companies that have worked towards being inclusive in other places are finding it easier to implement it in India. But Indian companies don’t have the same exposure, and are hence struggling,” explains Felix. This carries over to how apparent legal issues are interpreted, particularly the infamous Section 377. He explains that employers don’t have to be worried about it, since it doesn’t “make it illegal to be queer.”
“Several lawyers who don’t understand what 377 really is interpret it badly to the employers,” he adds, leading to a misplaced fear of legal repercussions of hiring LGBT individuals.
Shubha concurs, saying, “While corporates are very happy to get the information and start the conversation, they are intimidated by how much they think there is to do.”
Making workplaces more inclusive
As a first step towards opening up workplaces in Chennai to the necessity of including LGBT employees, the Solidarity Foundation and Workplace Pride, along with Orinam, conducted a LGBT Workplace Symposium on May 19.
Shubha explains that the primary purpose of the symposium was to get the conversation going, to start to talk about it in the Indian context, and hopefully move forward from there.
Felix says that the symposium helped them meet the community and guide them with the resources they want.
With the foundation in place, how can corporates create a conducive workplace? According to Shubha, simply, “Make the space inclusive for LGBTQI+ employees within, and make current employees sensitive to LGBTQI+ employees coming in.”
This strategy is echoed by Ritesh, who’s been working in the D&I sector with a major MNC for the past 2 years, and who’s out at the workplace himself. “Many employers who take the first step are unaware they have LGBT individuals within the organization who may not be out,” he says.
The key, they assert, is sensitization campaigns that cover the entire organization, as well as appropriate recruitment strategies. Ritesh explains, “What really makes a difference is that the people you work with on a daily basis accept you. When I came out, a lot of my colleagues had questions - some silly, some uncomfortable. But I think once you cross the initial awkwardness, it’s just business as usual, especially if you’re a competent performer at work.”
Recruiting LGBTQI+ employees
However, bringing LGBTQI+ employees, especially transgender individuals into the fold comes with its own challenges. Ritesh explains that this is particularly true for those who do not have their documents in place, with a discord between the gender assigned at birth and their true identity.
PeriFerry, a HR consultancy that works with transgender persons, seeks to address this issue. They identify candidates interested in getting a mainstream job, engage them in training and development programs, and get them into workplaces. Hence, they run sensitization campaigns to ensure the workplace is ready and adaptable.
Neelam Jain, founder and CEO of PeriFerry, explains that these are divided into two parts: “The first is at a pre-recruitment level, where we provide an understanding about transgender persons. Transgender individuals might be working in your office but they may be hiding their identity, which is true of several people under the LGBTQI+ umbrella.”
The second part is still under development - an interactive campaign for the entire workforce. She says that the response to their campaigns have been pretty good, with one employer reaching out to them everyday.
One company actively participating in an inclusive workplace is the Chennai-based food startup, Kolapasi. The founder of the company, Santhosh Muruganantham, explains that many transgender persons were regular customers at their first outlet, 4 years ago at Nelson Manickam Road. Due to the cordial nature of that relationship, and crediting the fact that Kolapasi is a closely-knit organization, Santhosh says that it didn’t take them much effort to convince other employees to accept for transgender employees.
“We wanted to make sure they weren’t treated any differently from any of our other employees. The eventual goal is to inspire other companies to hire transgender individuals, and have them at retail outlets,” he says.
Santhosh also brings up an interesting point: “It’s easier for the LGBT community to integrate in smaller companies,” he says.
Ritesh agrees, saying, “MNCs may have the policies but sometimes it requires great effort, because of the size, to reach out to every individual.”
In this regard, they are encouraged by the new generation of entrepreneurs being especially progressive in their hiring practices.
Social good through corporate inclusiveness
“Corporates employ lakhs of people in India. If internally, these people are sensitized to be - at least as a start - tolerant towards LGBTQI+ individuals, and then accepting, the change percolates outside society,” explains Ritesh.
As an example, he narrates a personal anecdote. “After I came out to one of my colleagues, the colleague visited his hometown in Gujarat. When he met some relatives there, they were discussing their son - 16, 17 years old - who was showing some effeminate mannerisms. The dad was beating the kid up. My colleague then stood up for him, and has now become a support system for the teenager. So me coming out had a huge impact on someone in the community, outside the workplace.”
Ritesh is positive about the future of inclusiveness in Indian workplaces. He sees the steps, even if basic, being taken by companies across the country as a good sign. “If companies can see this inclusiveness as an extension of what they already believe in with regard to inclusion of gender, caste and religion to the LGBT community, in the next few years we should have hundreds of companies being inclusive,” he says on a hopeful note.