Over The Rainbow: How Inclusive Are Our Work Places?
Image: Dinesh krishnan
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.