Relocation to countries where homosexuality is illegal may leave LGBT employees at risk © FT montage

When Pierre Gaubert was a graduate trainee at an IT company in the US, he was offered a relocation to Dubai. It triggered a personal disclosure: “I had to come out. I said I didn’t want to go.” He declined the posting because homosexuality is strictly prohibited in the United Arab Emirates and after talking to a supportive human resources manager, he was sent to Madrid instead.

Working overseas is a chance for employees to experience a new culture and language which might help them climb the career ladder. An article in Harvard Business Review about employees’ international experience found that those who have worked overseas “are better problem solvers and display more creativity” and are “more likely to create new businesses and products and to be promoted”.

Relocation to countries where homosexuality is illegal may leave LGBT employees at risk of arrest and harassment. In those places where same-sex relationships and parental rights of LGBT parents are not recognised, it can create formidable challenges for accompanying partners and children.

As Stonewall, the charity, points out in a report: “Sexual acts between people of the same sex are criminalised in more than 70 countries and only a small minority of states recognise same-sex partnerships, [or the gender identity of trans people].” Additionally, it says, in more than half the world, LGBT people may have no protection from discrimination by workplace law.

One Paris-based gay executive, who prefers to remain anonymous, is preparing for a secondment to a country which prohibits sexual acts between men and does not recognise same-sex relationships. He “wouldn’t dream of being open” about his sexuality with his new colleagues, he says.

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While he has a long-term partner, his employer has not inquired about the implications of his move for his home life, such as suggesting additional paid flights home, or the opportunity to work from a distance.

This “casual thoughtlessness” has caused him to reflect that while there have been enormous strides in tackling discrimination, there is still a long way to go “even with people who consider themselves liberal, before real understanding of an employee’s situation comes automatically”.

Patrick Rowe, executive sponsor for Accenture’s UK and Ireland LGBT Network, says many companies make “assumptions that gay people don’t have family ties and are more mobile”. Or that expat packages and conversations start from the assumption that the expat will be a man with a trailing spouse and children.

Western line managers and HR executives, says Stephen Frost, co-author of Inclusive Talent Management, must stop seeing the “white straight male as the default” expat.

Adrien Gaubert, together with his brother Pierre, is co-founder of myGwork, a recruitment and networking platform for LGBT professionals. He says that truly inclusive organisations “warn everyone on every sensitive topic before relocating their employees”.

Julie Gedro, associate dean of business at the State University of New York Empire State College, says that this is not the case. “In a career landscape in which it is becoming increasingly helpful for professional development to accept and pursue global or expatriate work assignments . . . there is not a corresponding proliferation of resources that help sexual minorities to learn how to navigate these opportunities.” This can put LGBT employees at a disadvantage in terms of career development, she adds.

Ruth McPhail, professor of human resource management at Griffith University in Australia, says: “The biggest challenge for HR managers is understanding that a country’s social climate or ‘comfort factor’ towards LGBT people is often more important than the local laws.” In Australia the climate is supportive, she says, but the law has only recently allowed marriage equality, whereas in South Africa the climate in some areas is dangerous for LGBT employees — but laws have been in place since 1996 to provide protection against discrimination.

Prof McPhail suggests employees use social media networks to seek information from the local LGBT community to locate secure housing. “If the location is considered dangerous then they also need an exit strategy . . . and should establish with the company how this will occur and who will be responsible for which steps.”

Mr Frost warns managers not to be complacent about the environment in their home country. A report, produced between Out Leadership, an advocacy group, and PwC, found that even among international survey respondents who worked in companies that actively promote LGBT inclusion, masking one’s identity “remains prevalent”.

As Mr Frost points out, relocations, and whether an employee chooses to be out when abroad are ultimately personal decisions. “In the UK I am out. In Saudi, I am only out to a few people. [I] might be more elusive. I wouldn’t want to work for a long time in a country where [homosexuality] was illegal as it would affect my mental health.”

Mr Rowe, of Accenture, says foreign postings should involve a consultative process between the LGBT staff member, HR and the line manager. The objective, he says, is to facilitate an employee’s ambition to travel. If an individual declines an opportunity to work abroad in a country hostile to LGBT, then it is up to the line manager to make it clear “that an employee’s career isn’t going to be affected”.

Best practice when LGBT staff work abroad

Stonewall advises that employers’ mobility policies should include information on the situation for LGBT people in various countries, to help employees, or those with LGBT dependants, to know what to expect and how to prepare.

Stonewall’s report on global mobility, says: “Where relocation support is offered to family members, this should be clearly LGBT inclusive. Where dependent visas are not available to same-sex couples, the best organisations commit to finding alternative ways of relocation, if possible. The very best policies and guidelines state that additional travel expenses will be covered where family relocation isn’t possible.”

Letter in response to this article:

Being gay has to be more than a corporate privilege / From Mark Peaker, The Peak, Hong Kong

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