How can Indian startups be truly inclusive?

In Bengaluru’s Marathahalli, rainbow-colored gates outside the Wells Fargo Center indicate that the multinational financial services company is celebrating Pride Month. A few kilometers further on, a rainbow flag adorns the offices of HSBC Electronic Data Processing.

The rainbow flag or the pride flag is symbolic of the LGBTQIA+ movement (an inclusive term for all genders and sexualities). Every June, brands around the world don the rainbow to celebrate Pride Month, often incorporating the rainbow flag into their branding.

But what happens after June 30? In Entrepreneurship 101, Your story dives deep to understand where India Inc stands when it comes to inclusivity for the queer community.

Leading companies

A survey conducted by Glassdoor in 2020 found that 76% of job seekers and employees consider a diverse workplace to be an important factor in evaluating job opportunities and companies.

The India Workplace Equality Index 2021, which lists companies that have successfully integrated LGBTQIA+ inclusion into their policies – external communication and hiring practices – while demonstrating a long-term and deep commitment to queer inclusion, highlights highlight companies such as Accenture, Bain & Company, Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte, IBM, Tata Steel and Thoughtworks.

Provider of digital payment solutions PayU recently celebrated Pride Month by launching new initiatives to foster a more inclusive and safer work environment. She expanded her medical insurance policy to include hormone therapy, gender affirmation surgeryand related expenses before and after care.

In 2019, Tata Steel rolled out an HR policy to enable colleagues from the LGBTQIA+ community to enjoy benefits permitted by law for their partners. These include parental leave, parental leave, medical benefits, employee assistance programs, common welcome points, health checks, transfer and relocation allowances and the policy on inner journeys.

Prior to this, the company had also launched WINGS—a resource group for LGBTQIA+ employees—in 2018. Earlier this year, it onboarded 12 LGBTQIA+ employees at its Kalinganagar factory. In fact, Tata Steel has been on the India Workplace Equality Index’s list of top employers for LGBT+ inclusion since 2020.

Last year, Axis Bank introduced gender-neutral restrooms and offered mediclaim benefits to all partners of employees, regardless of gender, sex or marital status.

In the SMB space, Saraf Furniture, based in Rajasthan, has Gender affirmation and sexual harassment prevention policies in place.

The furniture brand D2C has built unisex toilet, and is creating a wellness committee to safeguard and protect the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. Additionally, it offers awareness and training programs for the diversity of lifestyles of its existing employees, promoting ideas of mutual respect, awareness and communication.

Saraf Furniture has also been organizing a wave of LGBTQIA+ hiring for two years now. Founder Raghunandan Saraf revealed to Your story that last year it hired 234 people from the queer community, of which 198 people still work with the company.

Science and technology company Merck India has worked hard to make its offices more diverse and inclusive. In an interview, Shiv Kumar, HR Manager at Merck India, says that little things mean a lot. In all of its policies, the company uses gender-neutral language and is sensitive to pronouns. “It’s a matter of education and awareness,” he adds. Merck India medical insurance covers same sex partners.

What are startups doing?

Indian startups are not left out either. Right now the fintech unicorn TelephonePe has four transgender employees. Additionally, its insurance and parental policies support same-sex partnerships. Life insurance and health insurance provide coverage for same-sex partners.

“Parental leave for primary caregivers is comparable to what is available to birth mothers,” says Manmeet SandhuHR Manager, PhonePe.

PhonePe’s office has gender-neutral bathrooms, and its internal recruitment and demographic forms allow people to disclose their gender and sexual orientation without forcing a choice (it includes a “Do not wish to disclose” option). “We maintain a zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination in all its forms,” ​​she said.

Similarly, startup co-living Isthara launched its all-inclusive property Anannya last July in Bengaluru to provide housing solutions to the transgender community. In a conversation with Your storyCo-founder Krishna Kumar says, “We aim to rectify the traditional norms of the housing society and create a diverse space free from discrimination based on gender, religion and community.”

The property is also open to other guests, making it an inclusive environment. “At any given time, the Anannya property has over 50% transgender customers,” adds Krishna.

Thanks to Anannya, Isthara also helps them improve. To this end, he has linked up with Periferry, an NGO committed to the training and employment of transgender people in companies. In the future, he also plans to launch more Anannya properties in Hyderabad and Pune. Isthara also conducts orientation programs to educate new employees during their onboarding.

In 2019, food tech giant Zomato went one step further by introducing an “LGBTQIA-friendly” filter for restaurants on its app.

But not all startups have formal D&I policies in place, offering an implicit promise of “inclusion,” say a few founders. However, job seekers want to see action and real change.

What makes an inclusive workplace?

Entrepreneurs can make the workplace safer for gay people with a clear mission for all employees through diversity education and training, as well as implementing strategies to support the community.

“Taking LGBTQIA+ discrimination seriously and also through mentoring. Networking groups, seminars and employee conferences go a long way in making the workplace inclusive,” suggests Saraf’s Raghunandan.

A former director of human resources at Amazon, Manmeet believes that making a safe workplace for employees requires a three-pronged approach.

The first step is education and dissemination of informationwhich can be achieved through training, education, interactions and resource groups to create an environment where support and inclusion are built into the fabric.

She suggests startups take, “active efforts in hiring so there is a critical mass of people who feel supported enough to be open about their orientation. This would include policies and programs that make a business appealing to people in the queer community.

And finally, have a zero tolerance policy against all forms of discrimination so that people can be assured of their safety at all times.

Where is the gap?

Although this is a C-suite level issue, inclusion continues to be a challenge for many Indian startups. “There is a lot of intention to include D&I but when it comes to the reality of hiring decisions, Indian startups are not willing to take a lot of risk,” says Ashutosh Seth, founder of startup HRtech Risebird Talent Solutions, adding that there is a lack of a strong action-oriented process.

Your story spoke with several entrepreneurs who suggested that one of the biggest challenges is finding LGBTQIA+ job candidates. Ashutosh suggests that startups provide a greater platform for people from marginalized sections to showcase their talents, without judging them for their background and/or direction.

PhonePe’s Manmeet says, “We don’t require employees to disclose their sexual orientation when they join. However, we have leveraged LGBTQ-friendly hiring channels, such as partnerships with Pride Circle, as a way to increase both representation and community comfort.

Similarly, Raghunandan from Saraf adds, “Our hiring is mostly initiated through social media, LinkedIn and other HR aggregator websites.”

Kiran KalakuntlaCEO and co-founder of ekincare, an AI-powered integrated healthcare benefits platform, says mature companies or companies have more international employees and more mature D&I policies.

He says Deloitte asked ekincare to introduce a third gender option on its platform. As a result, the ekincare platform now lists four options under gender issues: male, female, non-binary and ‘do not want to disclose’.

Additionally, since startups typically have lean structures, Kiran suggests these companies may not have the bandwidth or talent to document policies.

But is it necessary to have policies in place? “Absolutely,” says Manmeet. “Given the challenges of open disclosure, LGBTQ-friendly policies are the best way to signal an organization’s inclusive and supportive culture.”

Saraf’s Raghunandan agrees: “Policies help companies build strong relationships with their employees. »

Kiran advises startups that are unable to implement gender-inclusive policies to focus on making their products more inclusive. An effective way to be more welcoming to the queer community is also to speak digitally about the culture and not just rebrand the logo for just one month every year.

But the question remains: are Indian startups doing enough for the queer community? “We don’t even scratch the surface… We should look to companies like ANZ (Australian and New Zealand banking group) for inspiration,” says Krishna of Isthara.

“We will become truly inclusive the day we stop talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, start having bold conversations, stop seeing the queer community as ‘others’ and stop asking for returns on investment” , adds Merck’s Shiv.

Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta
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