Give same-sex partners staff benefits, firms urged

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 August, 2010, 12:00am

A business guild has issued the city's first guidelines for employers on how best to accommodate their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) members of staff.

The 50-page guide, issued by Community Business in June, recommends firms provide same-sex partners of employees with the same benefits the spouses of other staff receive.

Community Business founder Shalini Mahtani said a 'small percentage of companies' in the city already have policies that address their LGBT staff, including IBM, Goldman Sachs and the British Council.

But some of the biggest firms, including the MTR Corp and CLP Power, both members of Community Business, say they have no plans to change their employment policies, under which only 'legal spouses of staff' are entitled to company benefits such as medical coverage.

Goldman Sachs - which sponsored the guide, titled 'Creating inclusive workplaces for LGBT employees' - said more than 5 per cent of its 1,000 Hong Kong staff identified themselves as members of the LGBT community in a confidential survey by the company. Goldman said it would send out e-mails annually to all staff reminding them of LGBT-specific benefits, in particular those available to employees and partners regardless of their gender or marital status.

The British Council said it provided benefits to non-married partners of its staff regardless of the gender of the partners.

IBM moved in 1995 to promote a safe and open working environment for LGBT staff in the United States by setting up the EAGLE (the Employee Alliance for Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual and Transgender Empowerment) Network. In March last year, it introduced the Greater China Chapter of the EAGLE Network on the mainland and in Hong Kong and Taiwan, tailored to the local culture. At present, IBM is assessing the needs of LGBT workers in greater China to refine the programme.

The Community Business guidelines highlight medical coverage as one of the major areas of concern for LGBT workers.

'Same-sex partnerships are not legally recognised in Hong Kong,' it says. 'Most companies do not offer same-sex partners the same benefits as spouses.

'This particularly impacts financial benefits, such as bereavement leave, employees' assistance programmes and relocation assistance.'

Recommendations in the handbook include developing policies for handling bullying and harassment, setting up an LGBT employee network, tracking of recruitment and career development for LGBT employees open about their orientation.

Mahtani said that while Hong Kong's anti-discrimination legislation excluded sexual orientation, companies could be encouraged to adopt LGBT-friendly policies by being shown their economic benefits - they result in more loyal and productive workers.

She cited a recent British study, which found that concealing sexual orientation at work reduced workers' productivity by up to 30 per cent.

'We are not blaming the companies [for not having LGBT-friendly policies],' she said. 'Many of them have not considered it.

'In fact, how many workers would go to human resources and tell them they want their same-sex partner to enjoy the same benefits, or to tell human resources they need to take bereavement leave because the parents of their same-sex partner have died?

'Our latest survey shows only a very low percentage are open about their sexual orientation to their own parents.'

Mahtani said Community Business planned to disseminate the guide as widely as possible in the business sector and planned to hold workshops for companies.

'Hong Kong has made a lot of progress [on the LGBT] issue all of these years,' she said. 'But we are still lagging behind [countries like the US and Britain] and we have a long way to go. So we want the business sector to take the issue seriously, as it is good not only for social responsibilities but also for their business. The guide is not just about anti-discrimination, it is about equal opportunities.'

The Hong Kong government issued a voluntary 'Code of practice against discrimination in employment on the ground of sexual orientation' in 1998 to provide general guidelines. The government said last week it had no record of how many firms had followed the code.

Even though the government had said it is committed to following the good practices set out in its own anti-discrimination code, medical and dental benefits for civil servants would only be provided to spouses 'based on the prevailing marriage system in Hong Kong', the Civil Service Bureau said last week.