Keeping Them Safe

Employers need to take extra precautions and give extra thought to the prospect of sending LGBT employees abroad, as some foreign cultures will be far from welcoming.

By Kristen B. Frasch

If keeping up with the ever-changing morass of domestic-partner and gender-identity regulations and laws -- federal and state-by-state -- seems increasingly challenging, translating these challenges to a global landscape can be even more burdensome and other-worldly.

Especially today, and especially considering all the behavioral and cultural changes employees have embraced in recent years.

With the rise in open hostility toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in some countries, dancing between an employer's desire and commitment to offer each employee every opportunity to succeed, and the responsibility to keep each and every one of them safe becomes more of a tightrope walk.

Just imagine sending openly gay or lesbian employees (and their spouses or partners) on relocation or expatriate assignments to Russia, where laws provide for the imprisonment of people promoting LGBT rights. Or to Nigeria, where a recently passed law makes being in a same-sex relationship punishable with 14 years in prison. Or to Uganda, where having sex with someone of the same gender or with someone with HIV can lead to 10 to 14 years in prison.

More now than ever before, says Mark Phillis, a shareholder and diversity and inclusion co-chair at Littler's Pittsburgh office, "employers need to be proactive when dealing with their LGBT employees who they may send abroad."

Even in countries where there is no open hostility toward the LGBT community, he says, "employers need to consider if their workplace relocation policies meet the needs of their LGBT employees and their families."

In a joint interview, both Phillis and Fatime Doczi, senior director of human resources for Rockleigh, N.J.-based Dolce Hotels and Resorts, and former vice president of HR for Wyndham Hotel Group, confirmed LGBT pushback is mounting abroad in response to growing Western transparency and openness.

"As people are coming out more and more in their orientations," says Phillis, "countries are clamping down."

In fact, according to a website, Countries that still criminalise homosexuality, established by Paula Gerber, an associate professor at Monash Law School and deputy director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law in Clayton, Australia, homosexuality is currently considered a crime in 80 countries, most of them found on the African continent.

While she was still with Wyndham a few years ago, Doczi helped an LGBT employee and her partner move from the United Kingdom to Dubai to take advantage of a promotion and significant career advancement. Though very Westernized today, Dubai "is still the Middle East," Doczi says, "and the Middle East is really not that Western."

That means for this employee, she and her partner -- who were fully open and transparent about their relationship in London -- are hiding their sexual identities, just as all gay, bisexual and transgender individuals must do in Dubai to survive.

"You would never know someone is gay in the Middle East," Doczi says.

So far, the relocation has been successful, but Doczi recalls the tenuousness of having to go through specific scenarios with the employee. "Like what if there was a fire in the middle of the night?" Hiding the nature of their relationship might get tricky, she says, if one of them can't get out right away or if the crisis escalates, although telling the truth would mean both would go to jail.

Phillis adds that hiding the truth is not always the safest policy. Companies often make this "knee-jerk reaction" when facing hostile lands, he says, "but you're creating risks for people; you're withholding their access for emergency healthcare," not to mention possibly setting yourself up for discrimination litigation if you're too paternalistic in the expat-assignment decision-making process, suggesting their lifestyle choices won't be embraced and they should hide when, perhaps, that's not the case.

Also factoring in to hidden identities are the benefits the company provides for same-sex partners. Whereas companies may be proactive in what they provide same-sex couples, countries might not be and such a provision could become a dead giveaway -- perhaps pun intended, in some cases -- as to their sexual identities.

Indeed, says Phillis, relocation and HR professionals need to consider how all benefits, including health-insurance coverage, will be handled for same-sex couples in countries that do not recognize same-sex marriages or unions. They should also consider whether it's potentially unsafe or not possible due to another county's immigration laws for a same-sex partner to accompany the employee on the overseas assignment at all. If not, he says, "does your company provide for extra-home leave for the employee?" One other policy consideration, he says: "Does your nondiscrimination policy apply even in locales where there are no protections for LGBT employees?"

Other things need to be weighed that go way beyond policy, Phillis says. "Do you provide adequate pre-assignment, country-specific briefing on the cultural and legal issues employees may face in the country?" he says. "For example, does it cover cultural norms as to male and female roles in the workplace or in the home? How does immigration treat couples, both of the same and opposite sex, when it comes to visas for visits or for work?

"If you have an LGBT affinity group that provides support for the company's LGBT employees," he says, "will [your expat] on an overseas assignment be able to continue to participate?" And if he or she is in a country that's hostile to the LGBT community, "have you considered alternative ways for that employee to remain engaged without being outed by his or her membership in the affinity group?"

Will you allow an employee to decline an assignment -- with possible adverse consequences to both employer and employee -- if he or she believes it's too dangerous for him or her because of sexual orientation? Phillis adds, "and can you provide your employees with access to emergency services that can assist them while traveling abroad to deal with serious health issues or evacuation from a country if necessary?"

Luckily, for Doczi's employee and her partner in Dubai, who are still there and doing OK, "Wyndham has an excellent emergency service so we could lift them out of the country immediately if necessary."

Even simply being female needs to be considered in expat assignments to cultures where women do not enjoy the same rights and legal protections that they do in most Western countries. Doczi recalls one story from another hotel chain operating in Dubai in which a woman went to a dinner and was slipped something in her drink.

"She woke up naked and raped, and went to a hospital and begged the doctors to call the police," she says. "Finally the police came, but she was told that unless she could provide three Muslim or local witnesses to the rape, she would go to jail. She did serve time."

No employer wants to stand in an employee's way when opportunities arise abroad that could benefits both the employee and the company, "but we all must consider their safety too, when the dangers are this real," Doczi says.

In the United States, she adds, "we tend to see things as U.S.-centric; we don't see the potential for these kinds of events to occur."

Just how aware are employers, and their chief human resource officers and relocation professionals, of the potential dangers abroad when it comes to their LGBT staff? How many really get it and are out in front on this?

Phillis guesses that figure sits at about 20 percent.

 

Jun 17, 2014
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