LGBT+ inclusive workplaces

LGBT+ inclusive workplaces

15 May, 2017
The Inclusion Index
Encouraging Hong Kong’s local companies to create LGBT+ friendly
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Why Hong Kong’s local companies are silent on creating LGBT+ inclusive workplaces

Today, LGBT+ issues are a mainstream topic in the multinational business community. Having an inclusion strategy can help companies attract highly skilled workers, take advantage of business opportunities created by the rise of the pink economy, and increase LGBT+ employees’ productivity and sense of belonging.

The recent Pride and Prejudice Summit in Hong Kong, organised by The Economist Events, gathered opinion leaders, experts and senior business executives to discuss LGBT+ issues in society, politics and business, including the importance of inclusiveness in the workplace. While multinational enterprises were keen participants at the summit, local companies were conspicuously absent from the discussions. Even without a legal framework protecting the rights of the LGBT+ community, multinationals have been taking the lead in creating LGBT+ friendly workplaces, typically as part of a broader diversity agenda. But what is being done by local companies in Hong Kong and around Asia?

Perhaps the lack of involvement from local business is partly due to cultural differences between the East and the West. Western cultures generally celebrate individuality and difference, while Eastern cultures tend to value group identity, consensus and not standing out from the crowd. These individualist and collectivist values influence how the concepts of diversity and inclusion evolve.

In Hong Kong, most local companies have been slow to embrace the business case for promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace, whether through increasing the representation of women on boards or by removing barriers to inclusion for people with disabilities. Addressing LGBT+ issues is even more of a challenge, since they can be a taboo subject and some see acceptance as a challenge to traditional Asian family values. But we cannot afford to see it as unrealistic to ask local companies to consider LGBT+ inclusion. Currently, Hong Kong’s LGBT+ people, who may comprise up to 10% of the population, often conceal their identity and lead double lives, negatively affecting their personal and professional lives on a daily basis.

While LGBT+ people pay the personal price of a lack of inclusion, there is also a cost to business. Studies have shown that there is workplace and social discrimination against LGBT+ people in Hong Kong, and that the lack of acceptance at work harms productivity and companies’ ability to attract and retain the best employees. According to Mark Kaplan, a thought leader in diversity and inclusion, “LGBT inclusion in the workplace is not about people’s sexual lives … [but] about their identity and the extent to which they will be included if they are open about themselves in the same way heterosexuals are.” If an LGBT+ person feels they must hide their identity at work, their productivity and their sense of belonging and engagement will be diminished.

Young people demand a more inclusive workplace

More than half of Hongkongers (55.7%) are in favour of introducing laws against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, according to a 2016 study commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). Young people were particularly supportive, with nearly 92% in favour. Recently, 75 organisations supported the EOC’s call for the government to launch a public consultation on the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation to protect the LGBT+ community. But despite these positive changes in attitude, Hong Kong still lags behind other Asian countries in the advancement of LGBT+ rights.

All companies need to acknowledge that the rise of the millennial workforce brings changing expectations. Even though LGBT+ inclusion might still be a taboo subject for older workers, younger speakers at Pride and Prejudice expressed their expectations that their workplaces will be safe, open and inclusive for all, including their LGBT+ colleagues. Companies that ignore this growing sentiment will find it increasingly difficult to attract, engage and retain young people in an already competitive labour market.

On a larger scale, the lack of recognition of same-sex relationships, along with the immigration department’s refusal to grant dependent visas for foreign-registered same-sex partnerships, lessens Hong Kong’s competitiveness. This should be a particular concern for industries that rely on recruiting the best people from around the world, including technology and financial and legal services.

What steps can local companies take?

When you realise that some multinationals started their journey towards LGBT+ inclusion a decade ago, and see how strongly embedded diversity and inclusion is in their workplace culture, it’s easy to be daunted by how far Hong Kong has to go. But today, companies just starting to embrace diversity and inclusion have access to many resources, events they can attend, networks they can join, and other leading companies that are willing to share their experience. All these are available both locally and globally. Implementing an LGBT+ inclusion strategy is eminently possible, and should be part of a broader framework for inclusion that cuts across gender, culture, age and physical ability.

Here are some tips for local companies to develop their LGBT+ inclusion policies and practices:

• Ensure your equal-opportunity policy specifically refers to sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, in addition to attributes like gender, disability and age.
• Prohibit discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, and have a policy and procedure for handling LGBT+ related bullying and harassment.
• To foster an inclusive workplace culture, provide diversity and inclusion training to all employees, with specific reference to LGBT+ issues.
• Assign a person or set up a team to be responsible for diversity and inclusion, including LGBT+ issues.
• Establish an LGBT+ network that welcomes all employees, not just LGBT+ people, and encourage your employees to join external networks to learn more about the subject and about what other organisations are doing.
• Offer benefits to employees that cover their same-sex partners, regardless of their marital status.

Adapted from Community Business, “Creating Inclusive Workplaces for LGBT+ Employees: A Resource Guide for Employers in Hong Kong”.

Whether to come out as LGBT+ at work is a very personal decision, and many will remain in the closet, so companies need to develop guidelines and take steps to assure employees of their privacy. Creating an inclusive environment doesn’t have to mean encouraging LGBT+ people to come out. But according a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the low profile of LGBT+ people in the corporate world has contributed to “a negative feedback loop of ignorance and apathy”, making them too invisible to be seen as needing special treatment. Other stakeholder groups can help to advance the anti-discrimination agenda without LGBT+ people having to put themselves at risk in the first stages of a company’s journey towards greater inclusiveness. “For LGBT+ people, company leaders, young people and women are keys to opening the door to greater visibility and status,” the EIU report says.

Once a company starts working to improve its LGBT+ inclusion, how can it assess its progress against best practice and what its competitors are doing? One way is to participate in an objective, external benchmark such as the Community Business Hong Kong LGBT+ Inclusion Index, the first of its kind to gauge workplace inclusion practices and initiatives for LGBT+ employees in Asia. The index has proven to be a catalyst for greater change in big business, and there is also a version that tracks SMEs. It combines insights from global indexes to create an approach suitable for companies operating in Hong Kong. Businesses are ranked, assigned a gold, silver or bronze standard, and provided with insights on how they can improve their LGBT+ inclusion efforts. Companies whose progress is advanced will vie for a top-10 position on the index, while others will use their results to develop action plans for the future. The rankings will be released on 17 May 2017 to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT).

Bringing LGBT+ inclusion into the mainstream needs local companies’ participation. Everyone deserves an inclusive workplace, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender or other characteristics. With initiatives like the Community Business inclusion index on the rise, local businesses in Hong Kong that are moving towards embracing diversity have the support they need to foster a better working environment for all their employees and, ideally, harness the power of business to promote positive social change.

By: Lam Cho-wai, Community Business
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