Protecting employees where being gay is a crime

By Laura Colby

Members of Cuba's LGBT community take part in a gay pride parade in Havana, Cuba. Photo / AP
Members of Cuba's LGBT community take part in a gay pride parade in Havana, Cuba. Photo / AP

When Air France-KLM resumed regular flights to Iran last month after an eight-year hiatus, gay flight attendants urged Chief Executive Officer Frederic Gagey to let them take a pass, given that homosexuality can get you executed in the Islamic Republic.

"It's inconceivable to force someone to go to a country where his kind are condemned to death for who they are," stated their online petition, signed by almost 30,000 people.

In the US, states and cities have been excoriated for restricting the ability of transgender people to use toilets appropriate to their sexual identity. Duelling lawsuits between North Carolina and the federal Government, and a sharp rise in workplace bias claims, have put lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues centre stage in a way that hasn't been the case since the US Supreme Court legalised gay marriage.

But a broader, global threat to equality persists, and not just for flight attendants. (Air France didn't respond to a request for comment.) LGBT employees of multinational companies must often worry about legalised harassment, imprisonment, or worse.

While many nations mark the annual International Day Against Homophobia, about 75 countries still consider homosexuality a crime, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Ten of those states, including Qatar (site of the 2022 FIFA World Cup), the United Arab Emirates (home to financial hubs Dubai and Abu Dhabi), and Saudi Arabia, can impose the death penalty, HRC said. Representatives of the three countries, and Iran, didn't respond to requests for comment.

The brutal killing in Bangladesh last month of a gay activist employed by a US aid agency and increased commerce with Iran following its nuclear deal framework have lent urgency to how companies interact with restrictive governments. Increasingly, it is chief executives instead of politicians who are faced with protecting the rights, and lives, of LGBT employees.

Deena Fidas, director of the workplace equality programme at HRC, said that while companies can establish "a bastion of equality" at the office with a code of conduct, what happens to workers, and particularly local hires, in countries that allow discrimination isn't necessarily in their control.

"This is something that businesses are grappling with," Fidas said. "I don't think I could point to one company that has it figured out."

The subject is sensitive: Few companies are willing to discuss their efforts in detail, perhaps to avoid offending host nations or imperiling business. Even Apple, whose chief executive is openly gay, declined to comment other than to note that the company led by Tim Cook has a robust anti-discrimination policy covering employees worldwide.

The World Bank estimates that, in 2012, US$31 billion was lost due to discrimination against LGBT individuals in school and employment. Lower labour force participation led to more poverty and poorer health outcomes, in turn causing higher health-care and social programme costs, not to mention less economic output. There are geopolitical costs as well: In 2014, the World Bank froze a US$90 million health-care loan to Uganda because of an anti-gay law passed there.

Some 64 per cent of LGBT employees in 10 large countries, including the US, Brazil, India, and China, said they hide their sexual identity in the workplace, according to research by the Centre for Talent Innovation.

Most major American firms say they ensure that the protections employees enjoy in the US extend to offices abroad, said Todd Sears, founder and principal of Out Leadership, a New York-based consulting firm.

The US Government does the same, offering diversity training to employees worldwide, said Regina Jun, president of GLIFAA, which represents LGBT workers at the State Department and other foreign-affairs agencies. While some employees choose not to serve in places where the sociopolitical climate is especially hostile, many go anyway, she said, especially when they have specialised skills such as language fluency or agricultural expertise.

The reality in some countries is that LGBT employees face a stark choice about how to live their lives. Some couples prefer to maintain domestic partnership status rather than marry, even though that means forgoing health coverage for a partner. This is because US marriage records are public, and an embassy employee could theoretically be "outed" if someone wanted to search databases, Jun said.

While companies say they're consistent in supporting equality or inclusiveness globally, they adapt the way the message is delivered, depending on location.

EY, the global consulting firm also known as Ernst & Young, opts to have a high-level executive talk about LGBT issues in some Asian countries because it carries more weight with employees and clients, said Chris Crespo, the EY Americas inclusiveness director.

"We also make the business case that diversity helps performance not only from a talent perspective but in a company's branding in the marketplace," Crespo said.

In Japan, one of the firm's key leaders is a gay man who brought his husband to the post, she said, adding that the acceptance of LGBT individuals in that country has grown rapidly in recent years.

As for employees, EY offers the same benefits to same-sex domestic partners that are given heterosexual couples working abroad, including help obtaining a visa for a partner.

In certain countries where discrimination is codified, that may not be possible. Companies often seek to dissuade workers from going to locations where they won't be safe. For instance, a gay couple with children could face difficulty in Russia, which (like Lithuania and Nigeria) has outlawed LGBT advocacy, HRC said; it's termed "propaganda," a nebulous category that may be read to include gay parenting.

EY tries to accommodate workers who decline a move to inhospitable places, or those who get there and then ask to leave. Crespo cited the example of one man who declined a post in Russia and was sent to Paris instead.

Workers who do take jobs in countries with severe anti-homosexuality laws tend to hide their sexual identity, she said, and not surprisingly, same-sex partners are usually unable to get a visa to those countries. Such places can also be hard for unmarried heterosexual couples, Crespo adds: "We've told [cohabiting heterosexual] employees that you'll only be effective there if you're married."

The business community is the single largest driving force for LGBT equality globally
Todd Sears

The issue of protecting LGBT employees isn't just for the private sector, as illustrated by the widely reported killing of Xulhaz Mannan, who worked for the US Agency for International Development in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. Last year, the Obama Administration named its first special envoy for the human rights of LGBT people, Randy Berry, and it has also named openly gay men as ambassadors to Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, both of whom moved to their postings with their husbands.

Government agencies have been showing flexibility in accommodating gay employees and their partners, Jun said. She cited as an example one couple placed in housing surrounded by a wall low enough so passersby could look in. After complaining of feeling unsafe, they were assigned a house with a higher wall.

Local employees in nations hostile to LGBT rights, however, are at much greater risk. They "face a whole different set of challenges because there's no protection when they leave" work, Jun said.

That hit home on April 23, when Mannan was killed by machete-wielding assailants who barged into his home. The attackers targeted him for his role as editor of the country's only gay rights magazine. (An al-Qaeda affiliate claimed credit for the attack; a suspect was arrested last weekend.)

Despite the grim picture painted by HRC's map, however, some countries with LGBT restrictions choose not to enforce them. In Singapore, which, like Bangladesh, has such laws dating back to British colonial times, gay activists are allowed to gather and organise. An annual gay pride celebration called Pink Dot was sponsored last year by international firms, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Google Inc., and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Todd Sears's group, Out Leadership, provides companies with primers on how to operate in countries that criminalise homosexuality, including talking points for top executives to raise with local officials and ratings on how the law is applied in specific nations.

"The business community is the single largest driving force for LGBT equality globally," said Sears.

In India, for instance, consensual homosexual acts are illegal and can bring jail terms. Still, Out Leadership advises corporate clients that the Government there doesn't actively prosecute LGBT individuals. While such intelligence can provide a measure of comfort to companies worried about worker safety, there's a profit motive as well, because such knowledge also indicates "there is low risk of an international firm losing LGBT clients because they do business in India," the group said.

A lack of prosecutions doesn't mean there isn't bias. The risk to talent in such places is notable because same-sex spouses aren't recognised and have difficulty getting visas. In addition, local advocacy groups report widespread discrimination, especially in rural areas.

Still, Sears said, what most companies do to protect their LGBT employees in the most difficult locations is to simply not send them. And when they do go, employees tend to just avoid mentioning their sexual identity.

Maggie Stumpp, who is transgender, is one of those business travellers. She is a senior adviser to QM Associates, a subsidiary of Prudential Financial that manages more than US$100 billion. When abroad, she avoids identifying herself as transgender.

"Because of cultural sensitivities," Stumpp said.

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