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How lesbian, gay employees deal with workplace bullying

Inclusive policies send a positive signal to LGBTQ+ employees but name-calling, bullying and discrimination continues in workplaces

Despite drafting policies for inclusive workplaces, subtle bullying of LGBTQ+ community members does creep in. (iStock)

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Discussions about how to instil confidence among LGBTQ+ employees and the need for inclusive policies are many. Every other people manager spouts the right terms and sentiments but is policy enough when subtle bullying and harassment is an everyday affair and goes unchecked at most workplaces? These are some the questions that business school professors have tried to address in their paper, From Fear to Courage: Indian Lesbians and Gays’ Quest for Inclusive Ethical Organisations, published in Journal of Business Ethics.

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IIM Ahmedabad professors Premilla D’Cruz and Ernesto Noronha and Nidhi Bisht from MDI Gurgaon did their research in two phases from 2018 to 2020, and found that it was sheer determination that kept LGBTQ+ employees going at the workplace. Every participant said they were bullied about their sexuality at a workplace at some point in time.

“I don’t think anyone has escaped. Bullying is very difficult issue to resolve unless there is commitment from the top management,” says D’Cruz. About 35 employees (24 gay and 11 lesbian) between the ages of 22 and 57 working in multinational corporations and large companies in Mumbai and Delhi-NCR participated in the survey.

The bullying or harassment took the form of the employees’ physical attributes or demeanor, using slang, name-calling or asking prying questions about their relationship status. “It is up to the individual to come out. But participants said people asked them questions about not being married, or went through their social media profiles, identified them as homosexual and then made fun of them,” says Noronha.

Participants interviewed for the paper said their sexual preference was part of their persona. “Such participants created an image of being no-nonsense persons who debarred others from asking intrusive questions through fearless assertions against insensitive meddling. The respect and credibility that they got from the quality of their work gave them a lot of courage to accept themselves and voice their opinions,” the paper states.

Policies are important as they send out a positive signal to LGBTQ+ employees that the organisation is inclusive. Without policy, there would be a higher degree of vulnerability and fear among such employees, says D’Cruz. “The issue then is whether the policies are implemented effectively. That depends on the management and the leaders of the companies, and sometimes it could be that particular departments are safer than others,” she says. When the company ensures that the policies work, it instils confidence. “Employees will slowly gain confidence in coming out or seeking redress when they are mistreated.”

While MNCs and large Indian companies are trying to create an inclusive environment through policies, many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) still don’t have them. “In such companies, lesbian and gay employees felt more vulnerable. People finally quit to save themselves from being bullied. But I would say, there was ease in working with MNCs,” says Noronha.

Participants said there was a need for more sensitisation about LGBTQ+ issues in workplaces, especially understanding the sexuality spectrum and telling colleagues not to pry into their personal lives.

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Another point that emerged was that sometimes it wasn’t the entire organisation but a particular department that felt unsafe. So, a person may have experienced bullying and discrimination in one department, but the issue would have been resolved when they were transferred to another department. “We had a few cases like that. They were moved to other teams or departments, where colleagues were not concerned about sexuality. It is so much to do with the culture of inter-personal relationships within the organisations,” D’Cruz says. 

Despite being bullied, no one had lodged a formal complaint. Instead, they tested waters with micro-disclosure, or coming out to a few trusted colleagues. Out of the 35, most being in junior and mid management, about 12 opened up to a few trusted colleagues. “Since you don’t know which way the reaction will go, micro-disclosure becomes important,” Noronha says. Speaking to supervisiors or raising the issue at employee resource group meetings were other ways they tried to resolve problems. 

To truly make workplaces inclusive, participants suggested putting in place a code of conduct for all employees, apart from having an inclusive and ethical work culture. Having accepting colleagues and a supportive, fearless management helps people who are homosexual live authentically, the authors write.

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