HOW COMPANIES SHOULD RESPOND WHEN AN EMPLOYEE COMES OUT AS LGBT IN LEGALLY DIFFICULT MARKETS.

A few weeks ago I received an email from the Global Human Resources Director of large tech company that operates in multiple countries, including my every own Kenya. The HR Director was concerned about one of their employees who came out as gay and did not know how best to handle the situation.

Kenya is one of the 76 countries that criminalize same-sex acts, and one can be jailed for up-to 14 years according to section 162 of Kenya’s Penal Code.

Studies such as the Colorful Workplaces Report conducted by Hivos, Sullivan Marketing and Workplace Pride reveal this disparity of policy and practice in Kenya as 38% of the respondents were not aware of the policies.

Many multinationals operating in harsh environments for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex persons (LGBTI) face a difficult task in finding a balance between state laws (that may be in conflict with International Human Rights Laws) and global company policies that embrace the diversity and inclusion of everyone regardless of their sexual orientation. . On September 26th this year, the United Nations launched the UN Standards of Conduct for Business (Tackling Discrimination against LGBTI people) to provide a framework in which companies can comply (although not bound) by offering protection, support and fighting discrimination for LGBT persons in the workplace.

The standards of conduct are: Respect human rights, eliminate discrimination, provide support, prevent other human rights violations and act in the public sphere.

Drawing on these standards, some practical steps that HR or line managers can take to ensure a safe and welcoming space for employees include:

  1. Appreciate the employee’s courage for coming out and being authentic to their true self.
  2. Reassure the employee of full support and commitment of the organization to make sure that they feel safe and welcome.
  3. Ask the employee the kind of support they need from the HR/Manager (and discuss practical ways of making that possible)
  4. Explain to the employee what their coming out means to the organization (that it will be a process for others, but the HR/management is fully behind them).
  5. Reiterate that their safety is important off-site and the should take extra care of themselves (outside the office).
  6. Circulate an internal statement, preferably from senior management under guidance of HR and Legal department to the employees stating their commitment to diversity and inclusion, including sexual orientation.
  7. Arrange for a training session for all line managers on Diversity & Inclusion to help them understand the issues, language etc. If available, a member of the LGBTI community (civil society) could be brought in to talk about sexual diversity.
  8. Organize an interactive Q & A session over lunch or coffee for the staff (if the company determines it’s safe, the employee could share their story and provide the others an opportunity to understand the issues).
  9. Introduce safe space stickers in the office that could be placed on doors/desks/laptops/merchandise.

It’s important to note that changing attitudes is a long-term process and personal story telling has a powerful impact in how employees perceive their LGBT employees.

Companies have a role to create safe and welcoming spaces for everyone including their LGBT employees — -at least within their four walls!

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