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How to make your office more LGBTQ inclusive

Employers in Hong Kong still tend to ask about the benefits of being LGBTQ-friendly, wondering in particular if there are costs involved in being more supportive of sexual minorities in the workplace. For instance, in many organisations, there is a belief that offering partner benefits to gay and lesbian employees will increase operational costs and that workers may take unfair advantage of such benefits. It is important, though, to consider if this is a legitimate business concern.

We can take the case of QT and SS, who entered into a same-sex civil union in Britain in 2011. When SS moved to Hong Kong to work, the Immigration Department denied QT a dependent visa. In July this year, after a prolonged legal battle, the Court of Final Appeal ruled against the Immigration Department.

However, in a separate matter in the Court of Appeal in June, local immigration officer Leung Chun-kwong lost his case for spousal benefits for his partner Scott Adams, whom he married in New Zealand in 2014. 

It seems clear that, for the time being, the burden of proof for same-sex couples exceeds that for heterosexual couples when it comes to entitlement to work-related benefits. For example, without a marriage certificate, or when an overseas marriage is not recognised, a gay couple needs to submit more documentation - such as evidence of joint bank accounts and properties in both names - to employers to prove their marital status in order to claim partner benefits. Specifically, they need to show they are in a long-term, committed relationship in which the partners live together and share financial responsibilities.

The demanding burden of proof also means that when a same-sex relationship ends, it is harder for the individuals involved to construct a case to continue to claim partner benefits. That means it is actually more difficult to abuse same-sex spousal benefits.

Furthermore, same-sex couples are less likely than heterosexual couples to become parents. Therefore, we can assume they are also less likely to incur costs associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and other dependent benefits which their employers would have to cover. 

It is also worth noting that, with the prevailing culture in Hong Kong, gay and lesbian employees are more likely to hide their sexual orientation for fear of stigmatisation and discrimination in the workplace, rather than coming out for the purpose of claiming partner and dependent benefits.

Disclosing one’s sexual orientation is a private matter and often a difficult decision. For instance, Vicky Beeching, an English Christian rock singer decided, at the age of 35 and at the peak of her music career, to disclose to her family, her church and the public that she is gay. Her autobiography Undivided offers an account of a dilemma similar to that faced by sexual minorities in all types of workplaces.

For many LGBTQ people, not being able to answer a simple question about, say, their plans for the weekend feels disingenuous. Having to make up stories about fictitious boyfriends or girlfriends all the time is tiring. Not being able to bring a partner to staff outings and annual dinners is frustrating. And if it’s necessary to apply for leave to take care of a partner who is unwell, that can lead to more unwanted lies or half-truths.

What we see is that having to be extra vigilant in not letting slip anything about a significant other is stressful and dysfunctional. This can eventually lead to problems at work or, at least, not achieving one’s full potential.

From the employer’s point of view, there are certain steps to consider. One is to have a “coming out” coach to support those individual who would like to be open about their sexual orientation. This makes sense because organisations which have programmes on sexual orientation as part of their diversity training now tend to have an edge when it comes to recruiting and retaining high performers, especially in sectors facing a shortage of well-qualified professionals. 

Studies also show that inclusivity programmes which support more open communication benefit both employers and employees. Such initiatives facilitate honest exchanges which, in turn, can help to increase job satisfaction, productivity, and commitment to the organisation.