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Creating inclusive workplaces

Matters related to sexual orientation and gender identity have largely been a taboo topic in Hong Kong's workplaces.

The fact that same-sex unions are not legally recognised here and the lack of legal support to protect employees on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity are making it even more difficult to address the issue.

But progressive employers believe there is enormous scope for the local corporate sector to drive positive change for greater equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) staff.

Community Business, a non-profit group specialising in corporate social responsibility, recently launched a resource guide - Creating Inclusive Workplaces for LGBT Employees in Hong Kong - for employers. The guide, co-sponsored by Goldman Sachs and IBM, aims to encourage companies to adopt best practices in promoting equality for sexual minorities.

Shalini Mahtani, founder of Community Business and co-author of the report, says LGBT individuals face specific challenges in their private and professional lives as a result of the local culture.

"Companies should be concerned by the negative impact such challenges can have on workplace relationships, the health of these employees and, ultimately, productivity and performance," she says, adding that there is a strong case for providing an inclusive workplace. When an employee feels the need to conceal his or her sexual orientation, productivity suffers. She says an inclusive company policy serves to attract and retain talent. "The younger generation of employees will not accept a company that does not provide an equal workplace."

Paul Bernard, Asia Diversity co-chair at Goldman Sachs, says it's crucial for Hong Kong - as a regional financial centre - to fully explore the potential of its LGBT population and for firms to have inclusive policies. He says that of the more than 1,000 people Goldman Sachs employs in Hong Kong, more than 5 per cent have identified themselves as LGBT in a recent confidential survey.

Jennifer Van Dale, a partner at Baker & McKenzie and whose practice focuses on employment advice and data privacy issues, says an effective way to educate staff is for senior management to take discrimination and harassment seriously. "Staff are much more willing to participate in training and take the message to heart if they know that their supervisor simply demands that discrimination stop," she says. "Creating a corporate culture where discrimination and harassment are not accepted requires a top-down approach."

Reggie Ho, honorary chairman of sexual minority counselling group Horizons, says the government, or a statutory body such as the Equal Opportunities Commission, should let companies with good practices know that the government is willing to back them. "Even if you are running a company of 30 people, it'd be virtually impossible not to have any LGBT in your staff. Employers need to come to terms with the reality," he says.

Breaking down  the barriers

  • Educate staff about discrimination and harassment
  • Make sure training specifies what acts are unacceptable and not just an idea of unacceptable attitudes
  • Minimise bullying
  • Tackle staff who are hostile to training on LGBT issues by educating them to respect each other
  • Hire someone or delegate  an employee as the diversity manager
  • Establish an LGBT  support group
  • Extend spousal benefits to same-sex partners of employees