Open to all?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2011, 12:00am


One year ago, I and a few of my colleagues began speaking to employers across Hong Kong about the need to be inclusive to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees. Our rationale is that inclusive workplaces are better for business than those that are not.

Research and common sense both tell us that it is in those workplaces where individuals feel valued for who they are that performance, productivity, staff loyalty and retention are better. Someone who has to lie about their identity at work for fear of being discriminated against is not going to be as comfortable - and therefore as productive or loyal - as someone who can be open about their identity.

My conversations with many so-called 'employers of choice' have given me an idea of which companies in Hong Kong are genuinely committed to winning the war for talent. After all, the LGBT population accounts for at least 5 to 10 per cent of our talent pool.

The good news is that some companies, albeit a minority, are committed to their LGBT employees. These companies have taken the initiative to begin creating an inclusive working environment. A number have included or have committed to including a person's sexual orientation in their equal opportunity policy - even though we do not currently have a law that makes it mandatory to do so.

This may not seem like much, but when we consider that a company's equal opportunity policy generally applies to all areas - such as recruitment selection, promotion, training and development, and disciplinary action - it's clear that the impact is significant.

Further, companies are taking the lead on creating (or in many cases, supporting) LGBT employee networks. These provide not only a support mechanism for employees who share common interests or concerns, but, equally important, a forum or channel to express views or raise issues of concern to the company.

Yet companies in Hong Kong still have a long way to go. Of the companies I have engaged with on this subject over the past year, only a small number has a specific equal opportunity policy that covers sexual orientation, and fewer still have a policy on gender identity.

What is somewhat disappointing is that many of the multinationals that in other parts of the world include sexual orientation and gender identity in their equal opportunity policy, fail to do so in Hong Kong. Why is this?

The answer is simple. As always, it comes down to leadership and, in this case, the failure of corporate leadership in Hong Kong to understand the benefits of engaging on the subject of sexual minorities.

Some companies have used the excuse of the local culture or the lack of a legal framework in Hong Kong as reasons why they are not engaging on LGBT issues. These are merely excuses and cannot justify why employees in Hong Kong would not be afforded the same protection as those in other parts of the world. Furthermore, and critically, they clearly do not understand that such a policy will be good for business in Hong Kong, as they accept that it is elsewhere.

On Tuesday, to mark International Day Against Homophobia, many big and small companies around the world chose to demonstrate their commitment to LGBT employees and customers. They did this by taking action that demonstrated this commitment. The initiatives were vast and varied and included, for example, writing sexual orientation into their equal opportunity policy, launching a mentoring programme for LGBT staff or engaging employees in discussions on sexual orientation issues, such as, what if your child was gay? Regardless of the extent of their action, all of the companies who showed their support recognise the value that an open and inclusive workplace has on their bottom line and the contribution that their LGBT employees make.

This took enlightened leadership to put aside any predetermined cultural or religious beliefs and focus on their business of attracting and retaining talent.

Shalini Mahtani is founder of Community Business and co-author of 'Creating Inclusive Workplaces for LGBT Employees: A Resource Guide for Employers in Hong Kong'