IN DECEMBER 2021, Tata Steel’s west Bokaro division was looking for 20 heavy earth moving machinery operators at its mining site. The HR manager decided to give an opportunity to the local transgender community to become a part of the organised workforce. He invited them to the site and got them to interact with members of the workers’ union who, to his surprise, were open to the idea of members from the transgender community as peers. After qualifying an entry-level test, 14 transgenders joined the workforce. Since then, the ₹2.43 lakh crore steel major has over 100 transgender employees across locations, the most recent hiring being 12 crane operating trainees at the company’s Kalinganagar plant.

“Their performance is equal if not better than the men folk, but more importantly, a lot of myths have got broken and the journey has taken off very well,” says Jaya Singh Panda, chief learning & development and chief diversity officer, Tata Steel. The company has also invested to help them settle into the workforce. From tweaking insurance policies to support sex-affirmation surgeries to sensitising employees to the needs of the community, and even streamlining processes such as how they would be treated by doctors at the health centre, Tata Steel has created a detailed playbook.

Another initiative by the company to push gender diversity beyond women is 'QUEERious', a case study-based contest conducted in business schools and technical schools for people from the LGBTQ+ community. Last year, it received 500 applications, out of which 10 students were given internships. Eventually, three got placed in the organisation. “This year, Kyoorious has already received 1,600 application,” points out Panda.

A diverse workforce that represents people with varied sexual orientations, diverse races, ethnicities and those with disabilities is a must-have according to the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDG). But there is a strong business case as well.

According to a McKinsey report, companies in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean. While Tata Steel is a front-runner in ‘diversity hiring’, most companies are either struggling or don’t have the intent to look beyond women when it comes to diversity.

Having people from the LGBTQ+ community or people with disabilities require more than just a mindset change in terms of accepting and being sensitive to the needs of the community. Companies need to invest in creating infrastructure such as gender-neutral washrooms, setting up ramps, investing in technology that can support people with visual disabilities, or conduct training programmes to sensitise employees. “Most organisations talk about their intent to hire LGBTQ+ during the pride month (in June). Most sensitisation programmes also happen only during that time,” points out Anupama Easwaran, founder, InHarmony, an organisation which trains and places people from the transgender community.

Gender Parity

Automobile company MG Motors has a 37% diversity rate and women working on its shop floor in roles as varied as spray painters and door-fitters, traditionally entrusted with men only. French multinational company Schneider Electric has set an ambitious goal of ensuring that women represent 50% of new hires, 40% of frontline managers and 30% of its senior leadership by 2025. FMCG major Hindustan Unilever, on the other hand, has a 40% diversity rate and is looking to increase it to 50% by 2025. The company has not only been focusing on increasing diversity in managerial roles but also on its shop floor as well as in frontline sales force. Snack company Mondelez India is also actively scouting for women-run suppliers.

Even boards of male-dominated businesses such as alcoholic beverage companies like Diageo India and Pernod Ricard have 50% women representation in the executive committee and 30% in senior leadership roles. Organisations such as L&T, Tata Steel and SAIL are also hiring more women engineers to work on project sites, and up their diversity ante.

Tata Steel has hired 12 transgender crane operating trainees at its Kalinganagar plant.
Tata Steel has hired 12 transgender crane operating trainees at its Kalinganagar plant.

There is greater focus on diversity at the grassroot level, too, in sectors such as agriculture and sports. State millet missions are building a diversity narrative by encouraging women farmers to grow millet crops. The Odisha Millet Mission, for instance, has 1,500 women farmer self-help groups which produce millets, and also make other value-added products. In sports, the maiden women’s IPL was launched this year, and the government and companies, including Reliance, JSW and Tata Group, are grooming women sports talent from remote corners of the country.

Baby Steps

Though India Inc. is still a while away from embracing diversity in the true sense of the term, companies have started taking baby steps. Indian companies now have more women in leadership roles than their global counterparts — 36% versus 32%, says Grand Thornton’s Women In Business 2023 report. In the past two years, IT major LTI Mindtree has hired seven transgender workers, while Mahindra Logistics has 10 transgender employees in its third-party contract force and eight people on direct payroll. Axis Bank, Godrej Consumer, NetApp, Pernod Ricard India, Mercer, Publicis Sapient, Bosch, MG Motors and Schneider Electric also have diversity strategies that look beyond women.

However, most shy away from disclosing the exact number of the category in the workforce, since majority of employees are not comfortable acknowledging their sexual orientation or disabilities. LTI Mindtree, says Paneesh Rao, chief diversity officer, recently conducted a survey among its employees, urging them to disclose their identities. But before that the company made sure it made changes in insurance policies and infrastructure, as well as finer elements such as the language and pronouns being used within the organisation, to make them feel comfortable.

“We had a homosexual employee who asked us if our transfer policy allowed same-sex partners to avail relocation benefits. We changed the word ‘spouse’ to ‘partner’ and that has pushed many more people to disclose who they are,” explains Rao.

Sujoy Das, financial analyst and diversity & inclusion advocate at NetApp India, identifies himself as a queer and disabled person. “I initially didn’t acknowledge my sexual orientation because I was not sure if I would be accepted. I had to protect myself. Once I was stable in my career, I opened up.”

“We don’t force people to come out in the open, but we ask them to be strong voices. We encourage them to be part of our employee business resource groups,” says Protima Achaya, chief human resources officer (CHRO), NetApp India. The IT firm has a resource group called Proud for the LGBTQ community, and NetAbled for people with disabilities. “Our aim is to create an environment where people can speak openly. It’s not just about reporting numbers, but also enabling them to open up about their daily struggles to help us understand how to build more inclusive teams,” explains Achaya.

Pernod Ricard India in February last year hired transwoman, Zainab Patel, as its lead, diversity and inclusion. The move encouraged members of the LGBTQ+ community not only to apply for roles in the organisation but also disclose their orientation. “When the talent presented itself as LGBTQ, there was acceptance and sensitisation,” explains Patel.

Axis Bank has a banking product targeted at the LGBTQ+ community. It has also issued a mandate across branches for gay couples to open joint bank accounts. “When it comes to transgenders, most of them do banking through surrogates. The idea is to encourage them to be part of the formal banking system,” explains Rajkamal Vempati, CHRO, Axis Bank.

Having products for the LGBTQ+ also means that the bank needs to have a workforce mirroring the consumer. “We asked team leaders across functions — Do you have people who look different from you? They could be physically challenged, people with autism, or transgenders. If they didn’t, we asked them to recruit.” The bank also announced that it would reimburse gender-affirmation surgeries. Vempati says the moment the announcement was made, team members even from the gay and lesbian community came out in the open.

Mahindra Logistics started hiring people from the LGBTQ+ community, especially transgenders, three years ago not only in blue-collar roles, but in managerial functions as well. “It gives us access to untapped skill sets,” says Edwin Lobo, vice president, HR. However, the biggest challenge is to get trained people, as both the LGBTQ as well as the disabled have limited access to quality education.

As part of its CSR activity, Mahindra Logistics has tied up with an NGO and sponsored the training of 50 transgenders. “They have to be fit for the roles they are hired for, they can’t be hired just for increasing diversity numbers,” says Lobo.

K. Raheja Group has hired its first transgender employee, a front office assistant in the Mindspace Business Parks facility in Mumbai. The company started sensitising its employees two years ago when it decided to build a diverse workforce beyond women. “We hold regular workshops across locations for sensitising employees. We also get our housekeeping staff and security to be part of it,” says CHRO Urvi Aradhya.

Merck India has also recently started hiring people with disabilities and from the LGBTQ community. “We created a simulated environment where people could experience how it feels to be a person with disabilities. We actually got them to move around the office in a wheelchair, so that they were able to empathise. We got them to experience how difficult it is for a person on a wheelchair to even wash his/her hands,” says Shiv Kumar, CHRO, Merck India.

Merit Matters

Hiring a ‘diversity candidate’ just for the sake of hiring is neither good for the organisation nor for the employee. Merit does matter. “We have to make sure each of them gets a role they deserve. They ask for what they want in terms of growth in the organisation, training, new projects, foreign projects and so on,” says Rao of LTI Mindtree.

NetApp’s Achaya also agrees that merit and fitment need to be top priorities. “We ensure that we give the hiring manager a week or 10-days additional time to build a slate... Building a diverse workforce needs patience. Merit is priority, check-in-the-box hiring is not what we do.”

At Tata Steel, the basic requirement for trade apprentices is a matriculation degree with decent scores in maths and science. When it comes to diversity hiring, the company provides accommodation at the time of joining. “Whoever joins goes through six-seven months of training, post which they have to write an examination. Only if they get above 75% in the examination we place them.”

Pernod Ricard’s Patel, however, thinks that “the entire meritocracy dialogue is flawed.” When she joined the organisation teams were sensitised about the language they should use. “People were not sure what would be my preferred pronoun, so they made an attempt to learn ‘they’ as a pronoun. It was much later that they asked me about my preferred pronoun. I would have never made it to Pernod Ricard unless there was an affirmative action driving it.”

L&T employees at a client’s site in Jharkhand. Companies are hiring more women to work on project sites.
L&T employees at a client’s site in Jharkhand. Companies are hiring more women to work on project sites.

It is only the larger companies which have a clear diversity and inclusion strategy. The mid-and-smaller organisations still have a lot of catching up to do. “It’s the MNCs which are open to diversity hiring. Less than 30% Indian organisations consider diversity and inclusion as a prerogative,” says P.S. Vishwanth, MD and CEO, Randstad India.

According to the 2023 edition of Deloitte’s Women@Work report, around 91% women in India feel their organisations are not taking concrete steps to fulfil their commitment to gender diversity.

Rough Terrain

According to human resources solutions firm Careernet, though 70% of Indian employers have the intent to have at least 3-5% of their employees from the LGBTQ community, only 1.5-2% companies managed to successfully recruit LGBTQ talent last year. Though more than 65% companies have a clearly stated policy to include people with disabilities, less than 25% of office spaces are ‘disabled friendly’. Also, close to 60% of PWD (people with disabilities) hires are made at the entry- and middle-management levels. Very few make it to senior leadership roles.

“Most companies, barring a few, look at diversity beyond women as a tick-the-box activity. “Everything is symbolic, budgets are low, pockets are small and there is a lot that needs to be done. All that organisations are doing now is talking about their intent through glorified posts on LinkedIn,” points out Prateek Khandelwal, founder, Ramp My City, a hiring and training solutions firm for people with disabilities.

Over 60% of LGBTQ+ candidates face discrimination at workplaces, and only 27% report to higher authorities, according to the Careernet report. Most companies conduct sensitisation programmes only during the pride month of June, but that’s not enough.

A DEI expert cites the example of a company which did a relatively good job of sensitising its gay and transgender employees but overlooked lesbians. When a lesbian couple reached out for same-sex benefits, they were rejected. Though the same-sex benefit policy had been introduced, care was not taken to explain homosexuality and educate every employee. As a result, the organisation faced severe backlash from the community and allies.

Though organisations manage to hire diverse people, retention remains a challenge. In 2017, Kochi Metro created much fanfare by employing 10 transwomen as locomotive-pilots. However, all of them quit the workforce within months. They found it extremely difficult to find rental accommodations in the vicinity of their workplaces, and were harassed by other female co-workers. “Providing service quarters would have helped these women retain their jobs and lead a dignified life,” says a diversity expert.

Similarly, a leading IT company appointed a visually challenged person as its vendor and procurement head. Though the individual didn’t face discrimination among co-workers, external agencies he had to deal with made a mockery of his appointment and chose to interact with his peers or subordinates.

Most organisations prefer hiring only people with locomotor disabilities, and are not ready to absorb those who are visually handicapped or even those with speech and hearing impairment, says S. Pasupathi, COO, Careernet. “In case of locomotive disability, they don’t have to invest too much as most buildings by and large are locomotive-disability friendly. They have ramps and wheel-chairs available. For visual disabilities, they have to invest in braille-enabled software. In case of the hearing impaired, they have to invest in training their workforce to communicate in sign languages. Firms look at these as additional costs, not investments,” he adds.

Despite increased commitment and investment in advancing diversity equity and inclusion, progress is slow even globally. According to a McKinsey report, in the past five years only one in three companies has made progress in executive team diversity. From 2016 to 2022, globally, the proportion of women in leadership roles increased from 33.3% to 36.9%.

It is important for India Inc. not to get clouded. For transgenders to be colleagues at work, the need of the hour is to break biases.

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