Working with transgender people

Working with transgender people

Lack of skilled workforce and communication skills and that most transgender people have limited education are aspects that cannot be overlooked, say HR experts

Reena Mathai Luke

Today we are aware that advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is high on most corporate agendas even in India, but the real challenge of embedding DEI in the work space is a complex itinerary especially when it calls for ensuring inclusion of under-represented talent segments from different groups and geographies.

Not surprisingly, ‘inclusion’ for most recruiters often starts with an increase in women recruitment and often stops with the inclusion of people with disability and that too mostly ‘mild’ disability. But amidst all this, one substantial section of society, notably the LGBTQIA+ community, continues to face mainstreaming challenges and be accepted as a part of the workforce despite the landmark Supreme Court of India verdict in 2014 recognising individuals as a ‘third gender’.

Challenges and more

Srilakshmi Bellamkonda from Dr. Reddy’s Foundation has been working for the last 12 months to initiate a livelihood model for the transgender community, which could help them to get placements in retail or other sectors in line with their skills and aspirations. According to her, “after working for several years to get PwD people included as a part of the workforce, I was aware about the challenges of skilling people with special needs and negotiating for their inclusion. But in the last one year, I realised the challenges of skilling and finding placements for the transgender community is at another level altogether. In order to understand the employment opportunities for this community, I spoke to several employers and whilst most of the employers we talked to did not say ‘no’, there was a perceptible reluctance in taking this discussion further.”

According to Vineeta Baldev, an HR expert with more than 15 years of experience in recruitment in large MNCs, “Actually today many companies are dialling up on their DEI commitments and are also working on how to include transgender people; but there are several reasons why this is not happening at the pace we would like to report on. Recruitment and on boarding for a person from a ‘diverse’ background is a complex exercise but the biggest reason for not being able to recruit, despite a deliberate attempt to reach out to agencies for candidates from this group, is because they often do not match the  organisation’s JD requirements.”

This is confirmed by Biju Joseph, another HR person who recruits widely for MNCs. “The non-availability of skilled workforce that companies can tap into readily is just not there. For example, it is extremely difficult to find a transgender person who is skilled in AI or machine language and so we rely on specialised recruitment vendors to help us. Even for entry-level jobs, their lack of communication skills especially in English is something we cannot overlook because of our western clientele and it is not easy to find the kind of talent that we need,” he says.

Skill sets

While this is one aspect of the problem, the other reality is that most transgender people have limited education as well as exposure because of their difficulty in staying in school or going to college without being harassed or discriminated. As a result most of them do not have skills or professional degrees.

Explains Krishna Gurramkonda, a transgender male and an activist in addition to being the founder of Suraksha Trust in Hyderabad, “It is a fact that several companies contact me for candidates from my community but out of 1000 offers only two were aligned to our skills and needs. In fact, these job offers are usually related to housekeeping and most of the time, our people are assigned to cleaning the wash rooms!”  

He adds, “Unfortunately inclusion in the workforce is being talked about in India today because most corporates have been thrust with these guidelines as a result of global pressure or instructions from their HQs in America or Europe. It is not because there has been a ‘mindset’ change here in India. And this is evident, because we get these requests for candidates without the company even having an understanding of our needs or vulnerabilities.” 

He expounds further, “recently, a big multi-national company called me and specified they want to recruit only trans men for loading work. Now that person probably did not even realise that ‘trans men’ were born as women before they transitioned and therefore, would not have the physical strength or stamina for that job.”

Sensitisation, an urgent need

This brings us to the need for sensitisation especially among hiring managers as they are the crucial link and vital for establishing trust and confidence in the transgender community to take a step in this direction.

Joseph admits this is key because “frankly it is not that the hiring manager does not want to do it or does not understand the value a diverse workforce brings to the organisation but we cannot also deny that hiring managers too struggle with inherent cultural biases while trying to work out these new ‘accommodations’ and given this is a whole new experience for most of us, sensitisation sessions for hiring managers as well as for the company is important to avoid awkwardness and discomfort on both sides.”

“We are still a changing society,” says Vineeta, “and while we need to be sensitive and aware of the context, changing the collective mindset or accepting new cultural values is not something hiring managers can fast forward. It calls for new policies, new insurance plans, new vocabulary and even some infra adjustments. In fact, it is a whole new world order, which often brings with it a lot of micro-aggressions and in my present workplace while we are consciously making an effort to encourage people to move away from a binary mindset and embrace gender fluidity, I know there are many who would rather not talk about it and mess up things for themselves and others.”

Activists on the other hand are impatient to break this crust and insist there is never going to be a ‘perfect time’ for initiating integration of the trans community in the workforce. Parmesh Sahani, a noted activist and author of Queeristan shared in an interview, “misinformation and ignorance can make this look complex but being empathetic is good business. Studies have revealed that the economic cost of homophobia maybe as high as 30 billion dollars and India might be losing anywhere from 0.1% to 1.6% of its GDP because of this phobia.”

Needed: Fluidity in thoughts and action

While one cannot deny the above, the core problem when it comes to placement is more than just misinformation or ignorance. Unlike countries in the west, the problem in India (as well as other Asian countries) has several layers of issues, such as pan-social, economic and cultural tenets. These come into play when people from this group step out for employment in the ‘regular’ job market. 

“For example, documentation mandates by corporates is a big bottleneck,” confesses Bhavani from Solidarity Foundation. “Most employers want a certificate (like people with disability have to submit at the time of employment) to endorse their status as a trans man or a trans woman. But this is something many from this community balk at because unlike in the west, many of them still live with their families and prefer to be in the ‘closet’ and emphatically do not want to disclose their status. Also some just do not want to get any surgery done or be ascribed with any gender. People have to understand this is not just about the physical or biological state but also about the emotional and mental stance of how a person wants to be identified.”

Gender fluidity also has its own interpretations especially when we engage with different Indian constructs like Hijra, Kothi, Aravani, Jogappas, Shiv Shakti, etc. and each have their own rules and sub texts for confidentiality and privacy, which also defies documentation and creates a spoke when it comes to job placements.

Adds Jeeva from Solidarity Foundation, “Another difficulty we face is when companies insist for proof of educational qualification. Many of them, even if they have studied in schools or college are unable to submit these certificates because often this is left at their home – a place where they are not welcome anymore – and often it is used as a bargaining tool for them to return and live ‘normal’ lives. Also, some times their names no longer match with their new identities and this creates a new set of problems. In fact because of their changed identities and new preferences many of them do not have even the basic official identity documents like Aadhar or ration cards.”

“These personal struggles are all very real,” says Lakshmi, “and even for us who focus on people with special needs, the needs of this group – some which can be articulated and some which they do not want to articulate – makes them very different from all the other groups and this challenges all of us to find new solutions. But we cannot give up. And this necessitates some acceptance and adjustments from both sides. While employers have to revisit policies with a new ‘non-binary’ lens, people from the transgender community too will need to be empathetic and understand job profiles are usually not gender specific but at that end of it, companies pay attention to your productivity and that would call for some kind of conformity.”

Krishna agrees to this “I admit we need to get our community to get new skills if they want to work in MNCs or other business outlets. But traditionally our livelihood has revolved around ‘badhai, begging or sex work’, which we are not ashamed of and which provides us good money at least more than the salaries offered for entry level jobs! So I do not see people migrating to these so called ‘regular’ jobs unless remunerations and salaries are more realistic. But more importantly, organisations that work to train people from my community need to conduct skill trainings that are aligned to our aspirations. Most of our people prefer to work in the beauty and wellness section and not sit behind computers!

“I also think people are confused about our need for work as a ‘livelihood’ option. This might not be exactly true for the larger group.  No transgender person is dying for want of food or money. Our communities are very supportive of one another. Our need for work is more for being accepted as equal and not just money,” adds Krishna.

Kalyani Rao, Dr Reddy’s Foundation’s HR head says, “Our work has always been about supporting marginalised communities and this probably is the next level if we want to work towards inclusion. One area I have been trying to probe is the role of HR in hiring people from this group by touching base with other not-for-profits, placement agencies and companies that already have transgender employees. And one attribute that struck me was how this exercise is yet to be ‘process centric’.  So far it seems to largely revolve around the HR point person, which makes it largely ‘one person’ centric. This cannot be without its share of challenges and I was not surprised to learn of cases where transgender employees have left the organisation because the HR person resigned! While this highlights not just their vulnerability but also underlines the trust and confidentiality concerns in a way that we have never thought of before. And more importantly, as we consider editing our organisation policies, it is not sufficient to keep our eyes on critical drivers for productivity by focussing on how the environment is conducive to coordination and cooperation but also be alert for the need now to capture the employee’s perception of inclusion.”

Photos: Sushil Kumar