Every year, around the world, the month of June is celebrated as ‘Pride Month’, a positive movement which brings the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer (LGBTQ) community to fight against discrimination and for equal rights.
At Northbound, we believe that everyone should be able to bring their best to work. But what do you do when who you are is not something your coworkers accept?
Ujwal Sangwar calls himself a ‘late bloomer’ because he realised only when he was about 19 that he was homosexual. “It was a bad phase. I couldn’t get along with people because I was having this internal struggle,” he said.
Slowly, Ujwal came to terms with his orientation with help from Sociology and Psychology, the subjects he was studying in college in Nagpur. But he did not come out to his family or friends for a long time after.
When Ujwal finally joined a Psychiatric Rehabilitation Centre in Pune as a psychiatric social worker, he was tired of pretending. “I wanted people to know and I wanted to be proud of myself the way I am,” Ujwal told us in a conversation.
He confided in colleagues he was close to but didn’t get the support he had hoped for.
“Some were okay but not comfortable with me talking about it. I even got bullied for a while after that. People would tease me and make derogatory comments. I didn’t expect that especially since we were all working in a psychiatric setup,” Ujwal said.
Eventually, Ujwal had to take it up with a senior who intervened and helped him out. He continued to work there for almost six years before moving on to now being a counsellor in an educational institute. Here, too, he faced some discrimination from colleagues at first but with help from his boss, things were smoothed out and Ujwal is now comfortable.
According to a 2016 survey conducted by Mumbai-based think-tank Mission for Indian Gay and Lesbian Empowerment (MINGLE), 40% of the respondents reported facing harassment at their workplace for being LGBT.
The report titled ‘In & Out: The Indian LGBT Workplace Climate Survey Report’ looks at the workplace environment for LGBT employees in the Information Technology, Banking & Finance, and FMCG & Manufacturing sectors.
Of the hundred respondents in the study, only 48% were covered by anti-discrimination policies in their company. Further, 87% of them did not have formal LGBT Employee Resource Groups in their organisation.
The report also found that employees who were out at work had more trust in their employers, were more satisfied with promotions, and more comfortable interacting with co-workers than those who were closeted.
But coming out at your workplace is not an easy decision to make.
We had an email exchange with Udayan Dhar, lead author of the ‘In & Out’ study. Udayan is pursuing his doctorate in organisational behaviour at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland.
“Speaking to other LGBTQ people in your workplace can give you a good sense of what the culture is like. If your organisation has HR policies that explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, it is a good indicator,” Udayan said.
If the organisation has resource groups for LGBTQ employees, it means there is already a culture of openness on these issues.
Udayan suggests casual conversations over lunch or coffee to get to know specific colleagues or seniors better and to gauge how open-minded they are.
“Remember that coming out can happen in multiple ways. Sometimes it could be as explicit as telling someone you are gay, at other times it could be more subtle as keeping a picture of your partner on your desk and letting others do the guesswork,” he said.
Udayan says that since Indian law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation, one can depend on the organization’s HR policies for redress.
“In most cases, however, the first step is always to speak to your colleagues about how their comments/jokes make you feel uncomfortable. You may or may not mention the fact that you are LGBTQ. However, being authentic to your true self can make it easier to stand up in the face of such behaviour,” Udayan said.
If the comments/jokes continue, speak to a senior leader or mentor in the workplace who you know may be sympathetic enough. With their support, you can report the issue to HR or senior management.
Even if policies do not mention sexual orientation specifically, most organizations have guidelines against bullying or harassment in general.