Are you really ready for Inclusion?
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Ever since IPC Section 377 was amended in 2009 to decriminalize homosexuality in India, a number of companies have stepped up their efforts to provide an inclusive workplace for the sexual minorities i.e. the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual (LGBT) community.
Of late, having an LGBT inclusivity program is used as a badge by many organizations to proclaim their progressiveness. They claim that their policies and benefits are LGBT friendly. But companies need to do a quick sense-check; are the employees actually coming forward to make use of the benefits or policies? Especially if the processes require them to officially acknowledge their LGBT status?
Very recently I was at a get-together with a small group of colleagues and some of the jokes were around the ‘Gayish’ behaviour of someone at office. I had a sense of Déjà vu – Things had not changed much over the years.
Several years ago I had a team mate who was quite effeminate in his mannerisms and tastes. The general perception in the team was that he was gay.
Though he was a nice guy, an expert with his process and quite eager to help others, he was never actually taken seriously or fully accepted by the team.
He would invariably be the butt of quite a few jokes in the office and outside too. Sometimes, the jokes would be quite distasteful and he should have complained. But being the good natured guy he was, he just endured all the teasing and ragging with a smile.
Occasionally he would speak about his girlfriend; which everyone assumed he was making up, as a cover to hide that he was gay. Finally it turned out that he was not gay after all; and he invited the team to his wedding, with the very girlfriend, who everyone assumed was fictional!
Looking back, I can see that the team was clearly displaying various degrees of Homophobia; a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Homophobia can be expressed as antipathy, contempt, prejudice, aversion, or hatred.
Such homophobic behaviour can be seen even at schools and colleges. After all, we are conditioned by our elders as to how a boy or a girl should behave; and anyone ‘crossing the line’ is considered to be a deviant or a freak.
Companies have come a long way in protecting employees from workplace harassment. Every MNC will have a set of anti-harassment policies, a complaints committee and awareness sessions to sensitize employees on behaviours that can be perceived as harassment.
But the policies normally cover only the traditional definitions of harassment. They rarely extend to meaningfully protecting the LGBT community.
So when an organization says that it is LGBT friendly, what should it mean? The first step would be to provide a safe and conducive environment for the sexual minorities to ‘be themselves’. The anti-harassment framework needs to be expanded to cover all employees, irrespective of their sexual orientation and beliefs.
While LGBT employees may have apprehensions about ‘coming out’, the company should ensure that those who do, are protected. And of course, those who are perceived to be ‘different’ should be safe from harassment as well.
An NGO which conducted anti-harassment sessions for us had a comprehensive approach, using videos to depict situations in corporate and social settings where harassment or discrimination can take place – intentionally or inadvertently. And yes, the session was topped up by a senior member of the legal team talking about the repercussions of objectionable behaviour.
Only when the employees feel safe, can they can actually make use of the benefits and facilities provided by the company; else they’ll always have to live with the fear of being ‘found out’; and the inclusivity initiatives will be reduced to mere tokenism.