Tips from Microsoft and Godrej executives on how to build inclusive workplaces in India

Corporate pride.
Corporate pride.
Image: REUTERS/B Mathur
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At Rainbow Literature Festival, one of India’s first queer and inclusive lit fests, two Indian executives offered lessons on the benefits of hiring more LGBTQ employees, and making workplaces inherently inclusive.

Rashmi Handa, business engagement manager at Microsoft, and Parmesh Shahani, vice-president of Godrej Industries and head of the Godrej India Culture Lab, were in conversation with Srini Ramaswamy, co-founder of diversity and inclusion consultancy Pride Circle, about how far Indian organisations have travelled on the road to being diverse and inclusive. This panel on workplace diversity was part of the literature festival that was held in New Delhi on Dec. 6 and 7.

Unlike most conversations on the subject, where the LGBTQ community is treated as a mere subset of the larger Indian corporate community, this panel viewed it as a strong change agent.

Here are some tips from the panel:

Ignorant or homophobic?

Shahani’s efforts to make Godrej a more inclusive workplace began when he realised that thus far, his rights as an LGBTQ employee had been an “exception” and not the norm.

Nine years ago, Shahani asked the human resources team whether the company had anti-discrimination policies and special benefits for LGBTQ employees. “Most companies that had anti-discrimination policies said they should not discriminate on the basis of a range of things, but sexual orientation and gender performance were not a part of it,” Shahani said.

Eventually, when Shahani had a conversation with Nisa Godrej, chairperson Godrej Consumer, it became clear that such policies didn’t exist because no one had brought it up. “This is what I would like to tell anyone who wants to bring about change: Don’t assume that the organisation is homophobic. Sometimes it is just ignorant,” he said.

Similarly, getting insurance benefits for same-sex partners, and health benefits for gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy is “very possible,” according to Shahani. “Don’t just assume the insurers won’t assume your partners (to be heteronormative), because they will. But collectively, we can make a big difference.”

The other thing that makes the most impact is if the top management of a company is seen as vocal about equal rights, diversity at the workplace, and as “allies” of the community. “The other important thing is to create a culture of inclusivity consistently, telling our employees that this is not something we do just once a year when Pride (parade) comes,” Shahani said.

And a truly diverse workplace will not be possible unless more LGTBQ employees are hired.

Remember, you’re an asset

“We know that it has a good to it, and there’s a financial benefit to more inclusive hiring,” said Microsoft’s Handa. But companies are yet to realise the potential of making hiring practices more inclusive. A Boston Consulting Group report, for instance, says that companies that embraced diversity saw 19% higher revenues because of innovation. Shahani pointed to three strong cases for making an organisation more inclusive.

“As we have already seen, inclusion can make more money. Globally, the LGBTQ market has been valued at $5 trillion. In India, if you assume 4-6% of our population is queer, this market is about $200 billion. One of the arguments we use in urging companies to hire more inclusively is that even they did not see the urgency in doing so. You all love money and that’s why you’re in the corporate sector. So why would you not want a piece of this $200 billion pie,” he said.

Inclusivity = victory

“The second argument that we use,” Shahani added, “is that being inclusive makes you innovative. And there are enough studies out there to prove that. It also makes a company a more desirable workplace for millennials. There’s enough data to suggest that 60% of even straight millennials prefer working for organisations that are inclusive. So you’re not just attracting good queer talent but also good straight talent as well.”

And finally, “In terms of reputation, it helps a lot, especially if your company’s target audience is millennial. After the 2018 Section 377 verdict (decriminalising homosexuality), where I was speaking to the press about being grateful the law (criminalising homosexuality) was struck down, it was about Rs12 crore of positive publicity that we got for just four days,” Shahani said.

Given these numbers, Handa said, “Diversity should not be a mere tick mark while hiring.”

Shahani, though, flipped the argument on its head. At campus placements, for instance, he would tell the straight students that they needn’t worry, and that the company wouldn’t discriminate against them. “You have to remember that it is in a company’s interest and advantage to woo queer talent,” he said.