Rainbow Godrej

Culture  Leadership
25 May, 2015

Join our mission to create a truly inclusive culture – at work and beyond

Two days ago, Ireland made history by becoming the first country in the world to enshrine same sex marriages in their constitution, through popular vote. Last year, Apple CEO, Tim Cook, sent a powerful message when he wrote an essay for Bloomberg Businessweek, saying, “Let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.” It raised a flurry of debates on the proactive role that leaders need to play in supporting pro-LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) policies in the workplace and fostering an inclusive community.

At a basic level, LGBT rights, boil down to respecting and appreciating diversity. In the corporate world, there is a perceptible shift underway. Much research points to the fact that a diverse, representative team can help tap into the needs of a diverse consumer base. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, economist and CEO, Center for Talent Innovation details this quest for what she calls the ‘diversity dividend’. According to her, leaders who are able to ‘acquire diversity’, whether through background or experience, can appreciate differences and in turn, be more inclusive than others.  Companies that are able to combine a diverse team with leaders who are able to appreciate and value that diversity, create the ‘ultimate dividend’.

And so, this week, I want to focus on how, as leaders, we can become better allies and create an inclusive Godrej where all our team members can be comfortable bringing their ‘whole selves’ to work.

But becoming more appreciative of diversity is not something that we can keep restricted to the workplace. Not if we are to make a genuine shift in attitude. With roughly 5% of the world’s population estimated to be LGBT, this comes much closer home. So, we need to ask ourselves – how do we inculcate inclusiveness among our friends, family members and our children?  How do we visibly stand for openness, diversity and inclusion both at work and outside of work?

I am delighted that Parmesh Shahani, who heads the Godrej India Culture Lab, and who has been instrumental in our diversity and inclusion agenda, has agreed to write this week’s message.

Please read on…

As an ‘out’ (open) gay person working at Godrej, last week’s commemoration of the International Day Against Homophobia by our company was a matter of great pride and I personally received a lot of positive messages from many of you.

Over the past few years, the world has made huge progress in terms of LGBT rights. In many countries of the world, LGBT citizens have the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts, including the right to legally marry, and in countries with newer constitutions like South Africa and Nepal, LGBT rights have been enshrined in these constitutions. LGBT rights have also become very important at global workplaces as a part of the larger narrative of diversity and inclusion. In the US, for example, by 2008, according to an IBM report, 95% of all Fortune 500 companies had specific nondiscrimination provisions for LGBT employees.

In India, the situation has been complicated because of the confusion surrounding the legal status around homosexuality. There was a historic 2009 Delhi High Court verdict that decriminalised homosexuality, a 2013 Supreme Court verdict that reversed this decision, and a positive 2014 Supreme Court verdict for transgender rights.

Perhaps because of the shifting legal landscape surrounding the issue, or because of more deep-rooted ignorance, most Indian companies have shied away from addressing LGBT issues within their matrix of corporate diversity and inclusion. There has been an overall lack of corporate attention in HR policies or in any kind of sensitivity training. LGBT employees in India routinely face discrimination. A 2012 Mingle report called OutNumber in India, highlighted that 80% of respondents had heard anti-gay comments in their workplace and half of them felt that the homophobic work environment was leading to a loss of morale or productivity for them.

So, companies that do take LGBT diversity seriously in India like Goldman Sachs, Google, Infosys and our own Godrej, need to be celebrated. On our part at Godrej, we feel that we cannot talk about diversity and inclusion at large, and exclude this vital segment from the mix. For Godrej, LGBT inclusion is simply the right thing to do. It is beneficial to us in many ways, besides the very obvious one of LGBT individuals being existing and potential customers of our products and services.

Rough numbers of LGBT populations around the world indicate that approximately 5% of the population could be LGBT.  If one applies this to an organisation’s talent pool, one can assume that ~5% of the workforce could be LGBT. Alienating them can have negative effects on work culture and productivity.

Given the social stigma associated with being gay in India, most gay employees are not comfortable coming out. Research has shown that this prevents them from forming honest relationships at work, and negatively impacts employee morale. Often prevalent homophobia rubs off on straight employees who may not be aware of gay co-workers in their midst. These two simultaneous factors – of invisible gay employees and lack of sensitivity among some straight employees – creates a vicious circle that is hard to break.

Why being LGBT friendly is important to Godrej

Being LGBT friendly as a company is important to us in how we want to be perceived too, not just in attracting and retaining talent from this segment of the workforce, but also to appeal to the unknown number of employees who may have LGBT family members or friends and want to be associated with a company that respects them.

There is a huge attitudinal change sweeping across young India. There are now more than 400 million Gen Y citizens in India. This is also the largest Gen Y population in the world. Their attitudes are vastly different from that of the previous generations. They value diversity, and are far more open and vocal about their sexual orientation and gender identity. A future oriented group such as ours needs to recognise this, and move with the times. When we are perceived as LGBT friendly, we are considered to be “cool”, and so we consciously talk about our LGBT friendliness during our recruitment exercises like Godrej LOUD.

But above all, being LGBT friendly makes sense from a values perspective. What kind of company DNA do we have, what are our values and how do we take these into the future? We are clear that our values at Godrej do not allow us to discriminate. So Godrej is an equal opportunity employer that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. For those of you who didn’t know, you should be proud that our sexual harassment policies are gender neutral, and so are our adoption benefits – with the primary care-giver getting three months fully paid adoption leave. In fact, benefits at GILAC are extended to all registered partners and if an employee registers their same-sex partner, then the benefits would also include them. However, we go much beyond HR policies by trying to create a culture of inclusion at our company. This is achieved through regular events at the Godrej India Culture Lab and through our Diversity and Inclusion initiatives.

We would like our Godrej to be a role model in this regard. We want to establish the best practices that other companies in India can follow when they think of Diversity and Inclusion. We firmly believe that corporate India can play a key role in challenging mindsets and creating a more safe and open environment for LGBT individuals in India, and are committed to being an ecosystem builder in this regard.

However, there is only so much we can do in the workplace. Ultimately, our employees, LGBT or straight, have to go home to their respective families. In India, as we all know, the happiness of one’s family is paramount often over one’s own idea of happiness. This is similar to other parts of the world, but in India, and other non-Western countries, it is really the basis for everything. Karan Johar is right when he says, “It’s all about loving your family”!

Navigating your identity at home

So how people navigate their identities with and within their own families is key, and for LGBT individuals, acceptance and support from their families is a huge boost. But these stories rarely get told while talking about LGBT rights – the narrative is always built around the struggle against the law, or corporate diversity as I have been writing about until now. But what happens when you get home?

I want to share my own story. In my own case, I came out to my mom in my early 20s. It was a non-issue. My mom’s response to my telling her I was gay was “What do you want for dinner?” I felt quite cheated. “Is that it?” I asked? “Aren’t you going to be upset?” But she wasn’t. “It’s really not such a big deal,” she reassured me, stealing my dialogues from me completely! But this acceptance was very important. It gave me the courage and strength to be completely open about myself and share this with the world, subsequently.

Or let us take the case of Sushant Divgikar, Mr. Gay India 2014, who performed at our recent Godrej Leadership Forum in Mumbai. After his performance, his father spoke about how as a parent he has always encouraged Sushant, and accepted him for who he is. “As a parent, this is your role”, he said. “How can you reject your child just because he or she is different?”

There are many such heartwarming stories taking place in our India. Consider the story of Granny Cool – the wonderful 71 year old grandmother of Sambhav who is now the symbolic dadi of India’s LGBT movement. Dadi has been everywhere – on NDTV, given interviews to Mint (read: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/ZZBd5uEo2roEpITasYaMBO/The-Love-Issue–Granny-cool.html) and appeared on Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate.

Wherever she goes, she simply states that she will fight for the right for her grandson to have the same rights as other grandkids in this country. 

Also check out this video, sponsored by the UN, of Bollywood star Celina Jaitley encountering another rather cool dadi – (warning: you will be tempted to dance after seeing this song!

I see these cool parents and grandparents all around me and they give me faith about tomorrow’s India. Along with the freedom and spirit of our youth, I believe that it is the responsibility of our generation, my dear Godrejites, who function as parents and caretakers, to support young India to bring their whole selves not just to work, but also at home.

I sincerely believe that we should encourage more conversations about LGBT rights and diversity at large in our homes. “Whole Self” is not just a workplace concept. We should talk at home, with our families, about whether we are sharing our whole selves with them. If not, what is limiting us? I met the brilliant Professor Kenji Yoshino in New York some months ago, who wrote the award winning book Covering, and he told me that it is not just gays or lesbians who hide their whole selves. Every one of us, covers, in some way or the other, aspects of themselves that they feel others might not appreciate. What if we stopped covering? Might we not have better professional and personal lives? 

Parents or friends of LGBT individuals have legitimate fears. What will my child do when he or she grows older? Will they be happy? Will they find someone to love? Will they be discriminated against at their workplace?  Groups like PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians) have formed across the world to address these and other questions. I urge any of you who want to be part of these in an Indian context to contact me.

What can you do to be an ally?

So what can you do, dear Godrejites, if you happen to have a sibling, or a friend, or a child who happens to be LGBT? How do you nurture them? Let me tell you about what the parents of my first boyfriend did. They read up about what being LGBT really is. Then they sought advice from a gay friendly counsellor on how they might talk to him about it. This was important as they didn’t want to upset him in any way. Before the discussion, they grappled with their own prejudice and realised that it stemmed out of ignorance and fear. They overcame their prejudice and then spoke to him with love.

During the conversation, they then reassured him that they loved him very much, accepted him completely and wanted him to be happy. Then they invited me to dinner (they knew we were dating by looking at his mobile bill, which comprised a rather large number of calls from me to him and him to me at all hours!). At the dinner, they told both of us that they were absolutely okay with us dating but to please be back home before midnight as we were both in different colleges at that time – he in med school and me getting an education degree. Can you imagine, while the rest of my peers were hiding their heterosexual relationships from their parents, here we were, a gay couple, going out on dates, and then hanging out with parents.

I should mention here that my ex comes from a very conservative religion and his parents are pretty orthodox. Once while we were having dinner together I asked his father about this. He said very simply, “Yes I have certain religious beliefs, but I love my son more. And to judge him on the basis of whom he chooses to love seems rather silly.” It’s often as simple as that. 

You need to realise that one’s sexuality is not a choice, it is an orientation. Some people prefer apples, others oranges;, some people write with their left hand, others with their right, and some people might be gay and others straight. That’s pretty much it.

Tomorrow’s India realises the silliness of discrimination. Look at what the students of the Tagore International School, Delhi have done with their Breaking Barriers campaign – http://www.tagoreint.com/vv/V2.0/index.php?option=com_content&id=589&Itemid=255 .  I find this very inspiring. This is the kind of India that  all our kids should grow into – and I want your help and support, dear Godrejites, in co-creating it with them.

Rainbow Godrej 

I am sure that all of you know of the rainbow flag – the international symbol for LGBT pride worldwide. You know, when I look at our Godrej logo – I see the same rainbow in it. Yes, our logo has three colours versus the rainbow flag’s six, but I see the same inclusive spirit in both of them. There is such beauty that happens when diverse elements come together to make something much bigger than their individual components. So this is my wish for us at Godrej – that we celebrate our diversity – and use it to create a force for much greater good; both in business and in society at large. Thanks for giving me the chance to share these thoughts with you.

A big thank you to Parmesh for sharing this evocative and deeply personal message, and being such a wonderful example for all of us.

I strongly believe that as a leadership team, we need to more openly embrace and stand up for diversity and inclusion. And by doing so, send a message to everyone at our company and everyone who we partner with. We can no longer afford to merely pay lip service to what is a very real issue. We must be able to empathise with and empower our colleagues, team members, friends and of course, our consumers. We cannot be inspiring and effective leaders without being truly inclusive. And we owe it to our legacy of trust and respect for people to lead Godrej into a more inspiring and inclusive tomorrow.

As Nisa had so aptly said to all of us in her email last week, “There is no place for prejudice at Godrej; only space for open minds and hearts”.

If you have any thoughts that you would like to share with the team, it would be great to hear from you. And if there is ever any support that I can offer, or even if you just want to talk, please feel free to reach out.

Comments

  • Sunita Devrani says:

    Interesting perspective….

  • Sujit M Patil says:

    The “Whole Self” is not just a workplace concept… Every one of us, covers, in some way or the other, aspects of ourselves that we feel others might not appreciate. What if we stopped covering? Might we not have better professional and personal lives? Lovely perspective, Parmesh… Awesome piece!

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