When health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad sparked a row by calling homosexuality unnatural earlier this month, Aravind Rao felt the ripples at his Bangalore workplace. A heated discussion broke out in the pantry of the Thomson Reuters office. And most spoke in support of the minister. Someone said that all homosexuals need to see a psychiatrist, recalls Rao, a technical professional at the company.
Being gay, Rao knew that was a sweeping overstatement. But he let it pass. No one in my office knows my sexual orientation for sure, he says. Even then, Rao is a butt of gay jokes. The way I walk and talk is different. So people call me weird and poke fun. It hurts, but I laugh it off, he says.
Although Thomson Reuters has a policy of non-discrimination at the workplace, Rao has never considered coming out. People still have stereotyped perceptions about homosexuality, he feels.
Rao may not have pinned a picture of his partner on his office soft board, but a growing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) professionals in India are opting to come out of the corporate closet.
The reason, according to Nirmala Menon, CEO, Interweave Consultants, is changing mindsets at multinational companies (MNCs). Companies are waking up to the reality that LGBTs exist among their workforce and they shouldnt be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation, says Menon, whose Bangalore-based firm provides workplace diversity and inclusion training to firms.
Till a year ago, Menons workplace diversity workshops contained capsules on gender, generation and the north-south divide. But now, LGBT inclusion tops the agenda. Many MNCs believe that homophobia has become a bigger workplace menace than gender or a generation divide. They want to address this, says Menon, adding that her company has conducted group discussions and workshops on LGBT inclusion in 25 firms — including IBM, Texas Instruments, Fidelity and HSBC Bank. Its the newest thing companies are talking about, she says.
Joe Zachariah remembers being torn apart by a should I, shouldnt I dilemma when he was contemplating entering the name of his same-sex partner into Goldman Sachs employee information system. I had been living with my partner for six years but no one in office knew, remembers Zachariah, who works at the companys Bangalore office.
In 2009, Goldman Sachs launched an LGBT network in its India offices and put a non-discrimination policy in place. This helped me come out at work. I feel relieved about not having to hide an important part of my life anymore, says Zachariah, who co-heads the companys India LGBT network. He adds that 300 employees are part of the network today.
LGBT inclusion has, clearly, entered the multinational workspace. Like Goldman Sachs, Accenture also has an LGBT network at its India offices. This support group helps raise awareness and prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, says Prithvi Shergill, lead, HR, Accenture India.
At IBM India, it is mandatory for all new employees to attend a workshop on Prevention of Sexual Harassment. This workshop isnt about female harassment alone. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is also an issue, says Kalpana Veeraraghavan, diversity manager, IBM India. The company also runs a reverse mentoring project, where a junior LGBT employee mentors a senior employee. The idea is to create an equation between gay and straight employees. This breaks mental barriers, says Veeraraghavan.
Cisco India is in the process of making medical insurance and pension benefits available to the partners of all employees — gender no bar. Globally, the company has redefined what a spouse or partner stands for to include same-sex couples. We will roll out these benefits in India as well, says Radhika Muthukumaran, programme manager, global inclusion and diversity, Cisco India.
When Danish Sheikh joined Googles Bangalore office last year, it never struck him to hide his sexual leanings. The company was overtly gay-friendly, says Sheikh. In his first week at work, he became an active member of Googles gay group, Gayglers. We met for discussions. I even gave a talk on homosexuality and the issues around it, recalls Sheikh, who now works with the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore.
Interweave Consultants Menon believes that creating gay-friendly workspaces makes good business sense. Treating an employee with respect impacts a companys bottom line. A well-adjusted employee is more productive, she explains.
Diversity and inclusion policies also help on the recruitment, retention and employee engagement front. There is a huge war for talent happening in corporate India today. So companies are reaching out to different employee groups and with out-of-the-box benefits, adds Menon.
Ciscos Muthukumaran agrees that LGBT-inclusive policies help make a company an employer of choice. Today, diversity at the workplace has become a key factor for people when they make a decision to join a company, she says. Changing social norms and LGBT-related legislative reforms have also influenced corporate mindsets, believes Sucharita Eashwar, senior director, National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom), Bangalore. The gay debate is out in the public sphere. Companies cant brush it away now, she says.
In fact, LGBT inclusion at the workplace has become part of Nasscoms diversity dialogue as well. It was part of our annual diversity initiative last year, says Eashwar, adding that the session on creating gay-friendly workspaces was attended by representatives from 75 IT and business process outsourcing companies.
Again, in June this year, representatives from 11 IT firms met at IBM, Bangalore, to share the best practices for fostering a culture of LGBT inclusion in their organisation. This is an inter-company network for LGBT employees, says Muthukumaran.
Despite the new-found limelight on homosexuality in office, not everyone believes that corporate India is going gay-friendly. The changes are a blip on the radar, believes Pallav Patankar, member, Humsafar Trust, a Mumbai-based gay activism group. They remain restricted to the software, consulting and advertising industries. Discrimination continues in brick and mortar companies, he says.
Patankar would know. He remained a closet gay throughout his corporate career. After acquiring an MBA, Patankar joined the cut-throat, testosterone-driven sales and marketing department of Asian Paints. It would have been professional suicide to come out in such a set-up, recalls Patankar.
When Patankar joined Samsung, his mannerisms made him a butt of gay jokes. His supervisor asked him why he didnt have a girlfriend. On tours, my colleagues joked that they didnt want to share a room with me. They didnt trust me, they said, says the marketing professional. Even then, he kept up his heterosexual pretence.
At Humsafar, Patankars activism is focused on changing corporate perceptions about gay professionals. Last year, the trust staged a gay-centric play — Ek Madhavbaug — at five firms in Mumbai. The play is a monologue of a mother who discovers her son is gay. It was an effort to break the ice and start a conversation on homosexuality, explains Patankar.
| NOT ALONE: Arun Mirchandani
The activist adds that the trust also plans to conduct gay-awareness classes in business schools. The subject is not touched in HR courses. We want to change this, says Patankar.
Clearly, the efforts to create gay-friendly workplaces arent happening in multinational companies alone. There are individuals like Patankar as well — gay professionals who want to change the way corporate India views homosexuality.
Take Nitin Karani. He works with the Royal Bank of Scotland, edits a gay magazine, Bombay Dost, and gives talks — along with his mother — on being gay in India. My mother and I have conducted panel discussions at two corporate offices. We spoke about my coming out and her acceptance, says Karani.
When Arun Mirchandani joined a multinational bank in Mumbai, he didnt think his homosexuality would come in the way of his work. I was wrong. I faced discrimination even though I didnt reveal my sexual orientation, he recalls. Colleagues made fun of him and his supervisor gave him limited assignments. Frustration started building up. I wanted to do something to change perceptions, he says.
So Mirchandani wrote a book. His novel, You Are Not Alone, about a gay man with a regular job and a regular life, was published last year. I wanted to portray homosexuals as normal people, explains the author.
When Mirchandani switched jobs this year, his personal life was already an open book. Everyone in office knew I was gay, he says.
Mirchandani now goes to work every Monday morning without worrying about another happy-weekend-with-girlfriend story that hed have to concoct for his colleagues.
As corporate India embraces its gay workforce, thousands of Mirchandanis can heave a sigh of relief.