On September 6, in a landmark judgment that many of us had long awaited, the Supreme Court of India scrapped Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalized homosexuality.
“History owes an apology”, as Justice Malhotra so aptly summed it up.
People across India celebrated the judgment. However, this is just a start. We still have a very long way to go before we can truly become the inclusive, equal nation that we hope to become.
Our colleague, ParmeshShahani, who leads the Godrej India Culture Lab, and has been a strong advocate of LGBTQ rights in India, shared this Facebook post shortly after the verdict.
I have been quite surprised by the silence of most of India’s business leaders with regard to the Supreme Court Section 377 verdict. So many of them have LGBTQ friends and family – yet hardly any have commented over the past 2 days. We in the queer community will remember this in the years to come. Those who have stood by us over the difficult past few years and those who have not. In future, many will opportunistically seek to benefit from tapping into the queer community as we continue to progress. We will remember your silence at that time. And for all the brands coming up with cool rainbow Instagram campaigns, please look and see if your HR policies are inclusive at first. Do you have non-discrimination, partnership benefits and are you creating an internal culture of inclusion? If not, then all your rainbow themed “memes” that you hopefully want to “go viral” with are inauthentic and the queer community sees it as that. This verdict gives you an opportunity to truly reflect and engage meaningfully. Use it well. HIRE queer people. Trans people especially need your jobs the most. Create equal work environments. Engage with the queer NGOs that exist in our country. Support queer community building measures. All of this will mean MUCH more than rainbow Insta pics with your product in them.
I have been thinking hard after I read Parmesh’s message and the conversation on this thread. At the heart of it, LGBTQ rights are just human rights. This is about all of us and the need to become more respectful and inclusive. In the corporate world, there has been a perceptible shift underway globally, for many reasons, including the fact that becoming more inclusive is just much better business sense. There is so much research that points to how diverse teams fuel innovation and growth and importantly, help tap into the needs of a diverse consumer base.
That said though, it is true that we aren’t moving anywhere as fast as we should on this priority. We need to change this, because we can impact larger societal change more than we probably realise. Like Parmesh asks, if Indian companies become LGBTQ-friendly, can the rest of the society lag behind?
So, this week I want to share my reflections on what we need to do as Corporate India, to build more inclusive companies, and ensure that our LGBTQ team members feel respected and valued.
Here are some thoughts:
1. Have an open, authentic stance
This can’t be lip service. You either believe in equality and make it core to your choices, or you don’t. There’s no sitting on the fence. At Godrej, we are very clear that becoming more inclusive is simply the right thing to do – equality and respect have been part of our DNA for over a century.
This is as much true for individual leaders, as it is for a company.
You need to speak up yourself, make a public commitment, provide visible support, and role model for your colleagues and team members. That’s how you really become an agent for changeand help set the tone for our country.
One of my personal favourites is this email that Nisa Godrej wrote to our teams on International Day Against Homophobia in 2015:
At Godrej, we strongly believe that each one of us is unique and we can only truly flourish when we can be our ‘whole self’ at work. As an organisation that deeply values diversity and inclusion, I would be proud of us if we create a culture where our LGBT colleagues can be comfortable being ‘out’ at work and every single one of us is inclusive and respectful of it.
There is no place for prejudice at Godrej, only space for open minds and hearts. Please feel free to reach out to me personally if you ever need my support in this regard.
2. This is about ALL human rights
This isn’t just about rights for LGBTQ people. It is part of a much larger conversation about all human rights. As companies, we can’t be choosing sections of human rights to stand for. We have to become much more inclusive overall. If you approach it through this lens, you will realise just why this is so important.
3. Zero tolerance for discrimination
We can’t have our values end up being posters on the wall. We have to live them every day. At Godrej, we have a zero-tolerance policy as far as discrimination is concerned and we take any violation seriously. It also helps that we have a well-defined equal opportunity policy and a gender neutral anti-harassment policy, which protect the rights of our LGBTQ team members. So, this is very much linked to how we hire, develop and engage our people.
We need to ensure that various teams across our geographies participate in sensitivity training. Even the seemingly smaller gestures are important – like using gender neutral language; not asking someone about their ‘husband’, but instead ‘partner’. It is particularly important for teams like the recruiting team to embrace this imperative. This doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes, but that we are committed to having the humility to accept when we have gone wrong and do whatever we can to correct that.
4. Learn about LGBTQ
How much do you really know about the community? This is not just one monolithic mass of people: LGBTQ – Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer. Let’s be honest. There’s a good chance that what you know is based on snippets of what you have heard or read. So, learn. Really get to know who they are and what they stand for because without that, you won’t be able to be an ally or make real change happen.
5. Make it core to your culture
At Godrej Consumer Products, we aspire to become an emerging markets FMCG leader. Today, nearly half of our revenues come from our international businesses. We are navigating diverse geographies, diverse cultures and diverse brands, and becoming more inclusive to stay competitive, is an increasingly critical imperative for us.
When we recrafted our employer brand a few years ago, we identified ‘Whole Self’ as one of the three key pillars of our people philosophy. We want people to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work, as opposed to just their ‘work selves’. It’s no different for our LGBTQ team members. We want them to be able to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work as well, and to know that they can work with dignity. Just like we feel comfortable talking about our partners or children, so should they. But the sad reality is that many LGBTQ people feel compelled to hide or lie about their personal lives at work, just to avoid the stigma. We need to break this and ensure that people don’t shy away from having open conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation.
6. Get creative!
Many of the issues that we are trying to solve can’t be addressed by existing policies and practices. So, we are experimenting and encouraging more conversation. Some of our best ideas have come from these dialogues. For example, while we had extended medical benefits like hospitalisation cover to domestic partners of Godrejites, we found that other benefits like medical insurance, given regulations, needed a more innovative approach. So, we created a policy whereby Godrejites can purchase health insurance for their partners and get it reimbursed by the company. We have a gender-neutral adoption policy, we have replaced ‘spouse’ with ‘partner’ across our communication and documents and are in the process of talking to insurers to cover gender reassignment surgery as part of the medical benefits that we offer.
7. You can’t do it alone
We can’t build a more inclusive world alone. We need partners and allies and we need to be able to get many, many more people to join these efforts. For us, the Godrej India Culture Lab has been an important catalyst in many ways. The Lab, launched in 2011, is a fluid, experimental space that cross-pollinates ideas and people to explore what it means to be modern and Indian. Several of the Lab’s events are closely linked to our inclusion priorities. They have allowed us to broaden our conversations and find ways to partner with larger groups of people on making meaningful change possible.
In October 2017, we partnered with The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to launch an unprecedented set of global corporate standards to support the business community in tackling discrimination against LGBTQ people. Please read them if you haven’t. Parmesh and his team are also writing a paper on transgender inclusion at the workplace, which will be published very soon. You can read about some of their ideas here.
Our team members are also part of pan-industry diversity and inclusion networks and forums. There are companies like the Lalit Hotels, IBM, and the TATA group, which are doing some great work and we want to partner and learn from them. These interactions can be particularly insightful and we need to leverage collaborative efforts much more to make faster change possible.
8. Influence your ecosystem
We need to think much harder about how we start impacting the choices and behaviour of our extended networks – our consumers, suppliers, distributors, partners, investors, shareholders. We must ensure that our internal company standards of non-discrimination and equal opportunity apply to these relationships as well; to how we interact with our partners and how they in turn interact with their teams and partners. Think of how powerful the ripple effect can be!
9. This is personal
Here’s the other catch – we can’t just be inclusive leaders. We have to become inclusive individuals first. With roughly 5% of the world’s population estimated to be LGBTQ, this is much closer home. The questions that we need to start asking ourselves are really much deeper and more personal. How do we visibly stand for inclusion both at work and outside of work? And how do we pass it on – to our friends, family members and children?
10. Act now
We have enough catching up to do, so don’t wait any longer. Make the change start now. The real measure of how committed you are, is to take action. Where are the plans and measures, just like for every other business priority? We have a Diversity Council at Godrej, with our senior most business and HR heads as leads. The Council meets every quarter to define and discuss progress against all our diversity goals. We realise that while we have started, there is a lot that we need to do.
We owe it to our legacy, to lead Godrej into a more inspiring and inclusive tomorrow. We will experiment and make our fair share of mistakes along the way. However, that should not stop us from laying the foundations for tomorrow, making the necessary investments, gearing up and taking the tough calls. We have to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself, so history won’t owe an apology again.