“How will I recognize who belongs to the community? They don’t identify themselves during interviews..” asked a senior gentleman belonging to the legal fraternity at an LGBTQIA+ inclusion talk. One of the panelists immediately responded by saying it does not matter if they come out of the closet or not; every person in the workplace should ensure that a safe, inclusive, and supportive environment is provided so that people, if they so choose, can feel free to express themselves authentically in the workplace, without fear of any discrimination.
The person who asked the question did not come from a place of prejudice but from genuine curiosity and a willingness to learn. The panelist who responded was not judgmental or cynical but was merely trying to help open the audience’s minds. We all walked away with a lesson or two from that discussion.
Building and sustaining an effective LGBTQIA+-focused diversity and equity inclusion (DEI) initiative in Indian organizations comes with unique challenges. Most Indian companies are client-centric in a very formal setting. For example, law firms have only moved away from wood-paneled office spaces. In large traditional settings, people often feel uncomfortable contacting their colleagues or human resource departments. At its core, any initiative for the LGBTQIA+ community in a professional organization in India must only focus on creating a safe space for everyone, a space that shows members of the queer community that coming out to their co-workers and being their most authentic selves at the workplace will not result in any change in the way that others see them. Till the champions within organizations keep seeking this truth, the DEI needle will keep moving.
In any organization, true allyship requires constant efforts and sustained hard work. While allies are well-intentioned and want to further the cause of DEI, dialogues and policy-making with community members in the room will always be complete. We need both members of the community and allies to encourage open dialogue. Companies need to keep innovating their workplace policies until members feel comfortable coming forward, participating in these conversations freely, and using the introduced policies. Such a situation would be a triumph for any true DEI champion.
One thing that cannot be understated is the impact of empowering role models in an organization. Suppose organizations encourage their leaders to demonstrate inclusivity at every step, engage in conversations that motivate younger team members to open up, nudge members to attend DEI-themed discussions or provide visibility opportunities to community members. In that case, it will make a much more substantial impact than merely running year-long inclusivity talks and events.
Employee resource groups (ERG) can be a real game-changer here. Unlike the West, only a few organizations in India have full-time DEI teams. To scale up DEI efforts in an organization, ERGs have become a terrific platform for experience sharing and community building. As noted
author and trans rights activist, Janet Mock said, “I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act.” The volunteers who come forward and share their lived experiences and perspectives as a part of these groups can act as catalysts of lasting change, influencing individual and organizational behavior.
DEI audits are another helpful way for an objective third party to review an organization’s processes, gather member data points, and suggest changes.
Much literature is available already on what steps organizations can take and what legal rights are available in India. For instance, Parmesh Shahani has provided detailed guidelines in his book, Queeristan, on how to make a workplace LGBTQIA+ inclusive. In the book, Sex and the Supreme Court, Saurabh Kirpal delves into the rights of Indian citizens that deal with dignity, privacy, equality, freedom, and autonomy through a series of essays. A team of lawyers from Khaitan & Co also recently authored a compendium on LGBTQIA+ rights and Indian case laws.
However, beyond making this literature easily accessible, organizations must go the extra mile to make every member feel included and safe.
Pride month is widely celebrated across organizations in June. Whatever activity an organization engages in is a good start. It hopefully paves the way for a meaningful engagement with the LGBTQIA+ community. Going beyond awareness-building discussions and actively engaging with non-profit organizations is also essential. Organizations can collaborate with LGBTQIA+ organizations and work on joint projects. Equally important is talking about LGBTQIA+ efforts during campus placement interviews so that students are aware and join organizations that allow them to bring their most authentic selves to work.
Today, as members of the LGBTQIA+ community continue to fight for their rights and freedoms in various parts of the world, it becomes the responsibility of every citizen and every organization to take incremental steps toward making a home, a workplace, and eventually a society where there is no place for prejudice or discrimination based on one’s sexuality or gender identity or expression.
(Sukanya Hazarika is Director, Corporate and Commercial at Khaitan & Co and leads the firm’s DEI initiative, ARISE. The views expressed are personal and not of Khaitan & Co. Neither Khaitan & Co nor its partners, associates, or allied professionals shall be liable for any interpretation or information contained herein, including any errors or incompleteness. The contents of this article are not intended and should not be considered as legal advice or opinion.)