In her decade-long career, Neha Dixit has learned how to hide herself well. If an inquisitive colleague asks, marriage and kids are not for her — not after her recent divorce. It’s not like she’s not dating anyone, but she will only refer to her lover with a gender-neutral pronoun. If she can squelch all her natural tomboy instincts and “not look lesbian” at work, she will be just fine.
“If I have short hair, wear only shirts and trousers to work and have no boyfriend, there will be gossip about me,” says Neha, 32, who requested that her real name not be revealed. “When I go to work, I leave a part of myself back at home.”
Neha is a Mumbai-based executive with one of India’s largest telecom companies exploiting new-fangled business opportunities in a rapidly accelerating market. But within the company, conservative mindsets prevail. Homosexuality, she has gleaned from conversations with several colleagues, is considered a mental derangement or a sex-crazed lifestyle imported from Western shores. Coming out in such an environment would be professional hara-kiri. Her sexuality could be a major stumbling block in her career advancement. “I will not be judged by my work alone.” She also risks becoming an office joke; it could start off a trail of gossip and innuendo and her every friendly overture to female colleagues could be viewed with suspicion. Even worse, she fears her sexuality could be used as a weapon by some to blackmail or manipulate her.
The fear of being discovered is almost pathological. But Neha can’t afford to be totally reticent about her private life either. “I could be labelled a snob or a stuck up, affecting the professional relationship with my team members.”
She is forced to become a shape shifter, constantly editing and censoring herself amid pressures to fit within heterosexual norms. “I laugh the loudest when someone cracks a gay joke in the office,” she says. “When colleagues talk about their weekends and heterosexual escapades, I cook up my own stories.”
For Neha, and many others like her, the imaginary glass ceiling almost seems like an unbreachable barrier. A pervasive culture of silence has long bedevilled efforts to create workplace equality for employees who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT). For decades, they have waged a lonely battle for acceptance and visibility.
But at several large multinational corporations, a quiet churning is taking place to encourage LGBTs to come out of the closet. Many of these companies are discovering, to their amazement, that creating LGBT-inclusive work environments makes good business sense.
On June 3, representatives of human resource departments of 11 top multinationals — including Goldman Sachs, Royal Bank of Scotland, Cisco, Dell, Novell, General Electric and Microsoft — came together for a day at the Bangalore campus of IBM to share best practices for fostering a culture of LGBT inclusion in their organisations. The session, held away from the media glare, was the second such meeting since December. (The first meeting, which included Google, was hosted by Goldman Sachs in Bangalore.) The informal collaboration marks a first-of-its-kind endeavour in India’s corporate sector to create LGBT-friendly workplaces.
Most of these multinationals have inherited strong diversity policies from their parent companies. Some of them started training programmes to sensitise employees regarding LGBT rights several years ago, but there was hesitation over whether this would be socially acceptable. That hesitation now seems to be fast disappearing after the Delhi High Court, in a momentous judgement in 2009, read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to decriminalise consensual gay sex.
“Many companies understand that LGBT inclusion in the workplace is not about people’s sexual lives. It is instead about their identity and the extent to which they will be included if they are open about themselves in the same way heterosexuals are,” says Mark Kaplan, president of MGK Consulting LLC, a US-based development and training firm that has offered consultancy services regarding LGBT equality to several American multinationals with operations in India. He cannot name his clients as he is bound under non-disclosure agreements.
“We remind our clients that they are already managing challenging aspects of diversity such as religion, culture and gender,” Kaplan says. “If they can endeavour to create inclusion on those issues, they certainly can on sexual orientation.”
Several companies, amenable to such advice, are encouraging new conversations about LGBT rights that have seldom happened before.
In January, 22-year-old Danish Sheikh stood before his co-workers at Google’s office in Hyderabad, where he was a public policy intern, and announced that he was gay. About 25 employees, comprising senior management and junior staff, had assembled in a conference room on the campus to hear him speak. Many others had joined in via videoconferencing from other Google offices in India.
Danish had the backing of Keerthana Mohan, the company’s diversity and talent inclusions manager. In November, Google organised “The 6th Sense” in its offices in Hyderabad and Bangalore — a week-long event to celebrate its heterogeneous work force that includes employees of different race, colour, religion and gender identity. At the event in Hyderabad, Danish was enamoured by a speech on the struggles of being homosexual in India delivered by Nitin Karani, a Mumbai-based editor with the Royal Bank of Scotland and a well-known gay rights activist. Karani had been invited by Google to conduct an employee workshop on this theme.
Hearing him speak — coupled with the fact that Google has in place a strong diversity policy that prevents discrimination against gay employees — gave Danish the confidence to sidle up after the event to Mohan. He wanted to organise a talk on campus about his personal reflections on the issue.
Danish, who graduated this year from Hyderabad’s Nalsar University of Law, stood before his audience that day, dressed in a checked blue shirt and jeans. It was an opportune moment to shatter some of the most hackneyed stereotypes about gay people.
He asserted that being gay is neither against the order of nature nor a Western construct — human sexuality is a random happenstance of birth. Being gay does not go against Indian culture — he pointed out that the ancient Khajuraho temples have sandstone carvings of same sex couples. He made a case for gay couples to be allowed to marry and adopt children.
His speech prompted some unlikely questions from the audience. Some carvings of the temples in Khajuraho also depict scenes of bestiality, a woman in the audience said. Does that make bestiality legitimate? No, replied Danish, unperturbed by the unseemly comparison. A gay relationship is legitimate if it is consensual. Bestiality never is, he said. Others in the audience sought his opinion on how to make the workplace more inclusive for employees like him.
“You shouldn’t have to lie about your sexual orientation at your workplace, where you spend up to 12 hours of your life every day,” he says, remembering that interaction. After his brief stint at Google, Danish recently joined the Alternate Law Forum in Bangalore. “Staying in the closet is an extreme form of self-censorship,” he says. “Gay employees need empathy and support of co-workers to come out.”
Until just half a decade ago, such an open debate about sexuality would have been deemed unthinkable at corporate enterprises in India. For many multinationals, “the conversation is just beginning,” says Vinay Chandran, executive director of the Swabhava Trust, a Bangalore-based LGBT rights organisation. Since 2003, Chandran has offered consultancy services regarding LGBT workplace issues to a few multinational companies based in Bangalore. He was approached in April by the HR team of a leading company that has never before considered including LGBT-inclusive practices in its HR policy. He was asked to make a presentation on best practices before the leadership team of the company.
Chandran offered several insights on ways to instil confidence in employees who wish to be open about their sexual orientation, ways to deal with bullying of male employees with an effeminate demeanour, and to adopt a more gender-inclusive language in official communiqués, such as the use of the word ‘partner’ instead of ‘husband-wife’. Chandran also pointed out that if members of the leadership team themselves embraced these changes, the message would trickle down faster to the lower echelons of the workforce.
At the end of his presentation, Chandran was asked by one member on the company panel if a diversity policy in its case was warranted at all. The company has never encountered any complaints about LGBT harassment in its offices so far.
“Diversity policies,” Chandran remembers saying in his response, “are meant to pre-empt complaints of harassment by creating an environment where employees understand that being different is alright. What matters is their work. LGBT people aren’t asking for special rights. They are only asking that they not be given special discrimination.” The leadership team, Chandran says, was receptive and is likely to take the discussion forward.
In many ways, IBM is the frontrunner among multinationals in promoting workplace equality for LGBTs. It offers benefits — including pension plans, medical insurance, wedding leave and compassionate bereavement leave — to same-sex couples across several global offices. After the landmark Delhi High Court judgement, it is considering deploying the same benefits in India.
Every employee is required to undergo a training programme called Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH). It is designed to challenge the most rudimentary understanding of how LGBT employees should be treated. It is taught, for example, that participating in homophobia-laced water cooler conversations or circulating gay jokes on email is tantamount to harassment and will not be tolerated.
“It reassures LGBT employees that it is safe to reveal their identity in the office,” says Kalpana Veeraraghavan, IBM’s India workforce diversity manager. “It gives them the confidence that they will be judged on the performance capabilities they bring to the table — and nothing else.”
Last year, the company introduced ‘Second Life’ in its India offices. It’s an innovative three-dimensional animated-learning program that allows employees to have conversations in the virtual world as avatars. ‘Second Life’ has a special “gay breakout room” that allows participants to discuss issues surrounding their sexual orientation that affect their performance at work. They speak uninhibitedly — and without revealing their real identity.
But IBM’s most path breaking diversity initiative was launched in October: The reverse mentoring project. It is a voluntary programme that pairs up senior-level staff with a member of the Employee Alliance for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Empowerment (EAGLE), an internal employee resource group that has been active since 2008.
Over a period of six months, both engage in one-on-one conversations in which the mentor offers a glimpse of his cultural life — he offers information about queer pride events and film festivals — as well as his personal challenges and talents.
Veeraraghavan says the unique gay-straight collaboration is aimed at building awareness about LGBTs among employees who cannot easily correlate with people not conforming to hetero-normative behaviour. She hopes that eventually conversations between mentors and mentees will segue naturally to other subjects like discussing their career paths.
It is impossible to empirically quantify attitudinal changes brought about by such policy initiatives. But 27-year-old Tara Chattopadhyay, who has worked for IBM as an engineer for five years and is an active member of EAGLE, says the company’s diversity initiatives have made him feel comfortable in his own skin.
IBM, he points out, is one of few companies in India that actively encourages its LGBT employees to participate in gay pride events wearing company t-shirts and carrying banners of support with the company logo.
“It can be very stifling if you constantly live in fear of being discovered by your co-workers,” says Chattopadhyay, who did not disclose his sexual orientation at his previous job as it lacked a similar support structure. “It shatters your self confidence and erodes efficiency.”
Veeraraghavan insists that IBM’s diversity initiatives should not be mistaken for corporate social responsibility activities. The company sees diversity policies as a potent tool to leverage and expand IBM’s talent pool for its inherent business value. “Make no mistake,” she says. “Our aim is not to champion LGBT rights. We see diversity as a business advantage.”
In February, IBM’s new Watson supercomputer, lauded as one of the biggest computing advancements this century, won a rare victory at the popular American TV quiz show Jeopardy! The nail-biting contest between two previous winners and the supercomputer was dubbed by the press as the “ultimate man versus machine showdown”.
Watson won instant admiration the world over for its ability to interpret and respond to questions posed in natural language — even the ones peppered with ironies, puns and riddles. It can process 500 gigabytes of information per second, the rough equivalent of information contained in a million books. It is touted as the only machine capable of beating the human brain. Charles Lickel, IBM’s vice president for software research based in New York, was the driving force behind the innovation.
He is openly gay. His unique accomplishment ignited a fresh debate within IBM: Would the company have been deprived of this path-breaking innovation had it not created a supportive work culture for employees like him?
A poster displayed recently on an internal notice board at IBM’s Bangalore campus said:
What would be missed?
What idea would have gone unsaid?
What avenue would we have failed to pursue?
IBM celebrates the contribution of our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community.
Without this community, we would not be IBM.
“Running global teams effectively requires complete inclusion,” Lickel, who recently retired after 32 years at IBM, wrote in a new internally-circulated report dedicated to LGBT diversity. “If we can establish an environment where the whole person can come to the job, those individuals have that much more strength to overcome other barriers.”
Several research studies validate Lickel’s assertion. The inability to be open about sexual orientation at the workplace can reduce an employee’s efficiency, squelch innovation and curb enterprise within an organisation.
In its 2008 survey conducted with a range of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual employees across 21 private and public organisations in the UK, the London-based charity Stonewall said that being open “evidently makes good business sense”.
“Staff who can be open about their sexuality at work are more likely to enjoy going to work, feel able to be themselves, form honest relationships with their colleagues. They are more confident, motivated and ultimately more productive,” Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of Stonewall, wrote in the survey report.
“Discrimination, harassment — even bullying in the workplace — can lead to low self-esteem, demotivation, stress, anxiety and depression,” said a report on LGBT employees released last year by the Hong Kong-based Community Business, a non-profit organisation. “For the organisation, it can lead to low staff morale, increased absenteeism, decreased productivity, recruitment and retention problems — all of which ultimately impact the profitability of the company.”
Last year, an anonymous online survey that Community Business conducted with LGBT employees from several private sector banks, financial institutions and government bodies in Hong Kong, found that a lack of workplace policies to protect them is the main reason for not being open about their sexual orientation at work. The possibility that relationships with co-workers might deteriorate, the fear of being stereotyped, the fear of being fired or losing career advancement opportunities were some of the other main reasons.
In a study released in 2009, Catalyst, a research and advisory services firm in the US, said that inclusive diversity policies can reduce the rate of attrition. LGBT employees in such organisations that have them find that they have greater organisational commitment because they forge better professional relationships with co-workers than LGBT employees working in organisations without them.
While multinationals are taking the lead to create inclusive workplace policies, most Indian companies, private and public, are largely passive on this front. (Forbes India approached eight top Indian companies to inquire if they have a diversity policy and none of them responded.) “Why are Indian companies quiet on this issue?” asks Vinay Chandran. “Do they believe that LGBTs don’t exist among them?”
In its recent employee survey, a routine annual exercise to take the pulse of its work force, Accenture added an additional question. It asked its employees to voluntarily tick a box if they were comfortable identifying themselves as gay. Around 400 random employees checked the box, according to a source privy to an internal conversation within the company’s HR department. Prithvi Shergill, senior vice president HR, responsible for inclusion and diversity, says the survey was meant to develop “programmes that support employee growth and engagement.”
“Everyone brings distinct experience, talents and culture to their work, and we capitalise on that diversity,” he says. Shergill did not comment on the specific results of the survey, but he added that it will “support our commitment to create an inclusive and diverse environment for all our people”.
Accenture is one among very few companies that are waking up to the possibility that LGBTs could exist in their workforce, invisible and fearful of coming out.
“Before 2009, if an LGBT employee walked up to his HR head to demand inclusive policies, he could be told that ‘you’re a criminal in the eyes of the law. We can’t have policies for criminals’,” says Arvind Narrain, head of the Alternate Law Forum in Bangalore. “After the Delhi High Court judgement, Indian companies can no longer hide behind that excuse and do nothing.”
Mark Kaplan says that companies with a do-nothing approach risk facing the erosion of a wider talent pool.
“If your company does not have inclusive policies, you risk turning away not just potential LGBTs, but also heterosexual employees,” he says. “In this era of globalisation, an increasing number of candidates, whatever their orientation, look at such policies because those speak volubly about your firm’s overall work environment. You risk losing lots of other potential employees because they don’t want to work for a company without an inclusive climate.”
Many HR consultants point out that most Indian companies shrug off the responsibility for devising inclusive policies because of the deep-seated notion that sexual orientation is a private issue that need not be discussed at the workplace. LGBTs often face criticism for being unable to leave their private lives at home. They are blamed for wearing their sexuality on their sleeve.
Kaplan rejects that assertion, arguing that private conversations about human sexuality are always a part of workplace conversations in one form or another. “We often focus on LGBTs being ‘out of the closet’, but heterosexuals are out of the closet all the time,” he says. “They share all kinds of information that reveals their sexual orientation: They talk about their spouses or partners or dates. They have pictures of them on their desks. They receive calls at work from them. They often introduce them to other co-workers.”
“Your sexuality isn’t something you leave behind at home,” agrees Narrain. “It travels with you.”
At one of his previous jobs with a Korean multinational, 36-year-old Pallav Patankar vividly remembers a pesky boss who repeatedly inquired why he wasn’t married. Patankar would respond with a shrug. Then, at a board meeting, before a gathering of senior staff, he asked him if he had a girlfriend. When Patankar shook his head, the adamant boss lobbed another curveball question: “So do you have a boyfriend?” There were sniggers and giggles among the waiting staff. Patankar held his nerve. “No boyfriend either,” he replied. “But applications are open!” The boardroom exploded with laughter.
If that question had unnerved him, Patankar says in retrospect, he would have exposed a big weakness. “If I had got upset, people would know, ‘ah, to get the better of him, drop the gay card’,” he says. “If you’re open about your identity, no one can use your sexuality as ammunition against you.”
But coming out should not mean mixing up personal and professional life, he warns. Patankar spent more than a decade working as a sales executive at various private sector companies in India and overseas before joining Humsafar Trust in 2009. Early on in his career, he learned to parlay a personal motto into professional practice: To never have an affair with a co-worker. Anecdotal evidence suggests that LGBTs tend to be more emotionally vulnerable to this tendency than heterosexuals because of inadequate societal support.
“I hear gay men on this subject all the time,” Patankar says. “Very often, random gay conversations go something like this: ‘I did so much for him, gave him contracts and favours, and now he is marrying a woman!’”
If the romantic relationship with a colleague fizzles out, it could be a very sticky situation at work. “Who you break up with could eventually be responsible for writing your performance appraisal,” says Patankar. “This motto is like an internal switch in my head. The moment you enter my professional space, you cease to be a romantic object in my eyes.”
The other potential pitfall is deciding which colleagues to come out to, especially in organisations that don’t have an LGBT-inclusive support structure. “The inability to be out at work as well as being out at work in an unsupportive environment can have a negative impact on an employee’s productivity,” UK’s Stonewall said in its 2008 report.
“Some years ago, I plucked up the courage to reveal that I was gay to a senior colleague I could trust,” says a 42-year-old executive at a Mumbai-headquartered old-economy company who requested anonymity. “He was very supportive, but he offered me a word of caution: Don’t advertise it to the boss; he will never understand.”
The issue of workplace equality for LGBTs, he argues, is personality-driven, not policy-driven. “The decision to come out ultimately boils down to how liberal minded your boss is.”
The movement to create LGBT-inclusive workplaces is fundamentally a battle for acceptance.
This year, the Humsafar Trust teamed up with the Swedish International Development Agency to stage Ek Madhav Baug, at 12 educational institutions and 12 corporate houses.
It’s an iconic Hindi play about gay identity, originally written in Marathi by the late playwright Chetan Datar. It involves a solo-performance by actress Mona Ambegaonkar and reveals the poignant story of a mother who comes to terms with her 21-year-old son’s sexuality. Through his diary, she discovers that he is gay, and is troubled to read about his internal turmoil about his identity and his tumultuous relationship with his lover who is under pressure to marry a girl. In the end, the son, unable to cope with the intolerant world around him, ends up killing himself. But the play doesn’t end there. In an emotional stupor, the mother stands up to reject the playwright’s rendition of the ending, and re-enacts her own — the son does not commit suicide and she accepts him and his lover.
Humsafar Trust did not disclose names of companies where this play was performed because it is bound under a confidentiality clause, but Forbes India has learned that Goldman Sachs and Google are among the 12 corporate houses. In several performances, the play moved audiences to tears. In a world where people are afraid to be themselves, it tenderly sets off a journey of acceptance, says Ashok Row Kavi, founder of the Trust.
“Your sexuality is just another facet of your personality,” he says. “It is like the colour of your skin or the colour of your hair. It tells you who you are, but does not tell you what you are capable of doing.”
LEADING FROM THE FRONT
“If your company does not have inclusive policies, you risk turning away not just potential LGBTs, but also heterosexual employees. In this era of globalisation, an increasing number of candidates, whatever their orientation, look at inclusive policies because those speak volubly about your firm’s overall work environment”
-Mark Kaplan, president of MGK Consulting LLC
• Is one of the few companies in India that offer same-sex partners benefits such as health insurance.
• In 2009, it established an LGBT Network in India. Over 300 employees signed up to join.
• Has a training programme called “Out in the Open: Sexual Orientation in the Workplace.” Through interactive exercises, employees learn about how sexual orientation does matter in the workplace.
• Has a global LGBT network which is supported through local LGBT networks in different countries.
• Recently conducted an employee survey to develop programmes that create an inclusive and diverse environment.
• Has a strong diversity policy that prevents discrimination against gay employees.
• Organised “6th Sense” at its offices in Hyderabad and Bangalore in November. The week-long event celebrated its diverse workforce.
• It has an active employee resource group called “Gayglers” for LGBT employees and their straight friends and allies.
• Offers pension plans, medical insurance and compassionate bereavement leave to same-sex couples across several global offices. Considering deploying these in India.
• Every employee undergoes a training programme called Prevention of Sexual Harassment to check such cases against all employees including LGBTs.
• In 2010, introduced ‘Second Life’ in its India offices. It has a special “gay breakout room” where employees can have conversations in the virtual world as avatars.
• Builds awareness about LGBTs among employees through a reverse mentoring project. It pairs up senior-level staff with a member of the Employee Alliance for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Empowerment (EAGLE).