How to keep LGBT employees safe abroad

Author: Stuart Affleck

It may not seem a burning issue amid travel restrictions brought about by the pandemic, but for international professional services firms, there are a plethora of reasons to meet the needs of LGBT+ employees who need to travel or be resident abroad.

A report by Stonewall in 2018 found about 35% of LGBT employees concealed they were LGBT in the workplace because they were afraid of discrimination. However, McKinsey found there was a strong relationship between higher levels of diversity and financial outperformance. Additional research also found that companies that were more LGBT+ inclusive had more productive employees and better business performance. Although much progress has been made to tackle discrimination and improve opportunities for LGBT+ staff in the past decade, there is still a long journey ahead.

One way of improving access to opportunities for LGBT+ employees is by offering fair opportunities to work on international assignments. Although the current climate makes it difficult for employees to take on these secondments, there are UK employees still working around the world and remote opportunities to work with businesses abroad have become easier. But issues can arise on the ground and from a remote basis if the jurisdiction they are working in has anti-LGBT+ laws or culture.

Difficulties can also arise for employees if clients hold prejudice against the LGBT+ community. A recent study by Open for Business found that employers were not doing enough to inform their LGBT+ employees about the country's laws and culture before embarking on these assignments. Employers have a duty of care and putting LGBT+ employees and their families in a dangerous scenario could result in an employment dispute at the very least.

So what information and procedures should HR implement before sending their LGBT+ employees and, perhaps, their families on international assignments? This process will be just as useful for employers to judge whether certain international secondment opportunities are safe for LGBT+ employees.

Employers need to:

  • Create and maintain up-to-date policies and resources about the countries the company operates in, or is likely to send employees to for assignments. Regular reviews of these will be needed, especially if these countries are politically unstable. UK government travel advice and Stonewall's guide to keeping LGBT+ staff and their families safe on international assignments are helpful resources.
  • Source information on the laws and cultures and how they could impact LGBT+ colleagues or their families. Maintaining strong communication with local leaders about the situation on the ground will be valuable, particularly to find out if clients have been disrespectful to LGBT+ colleagues.
  • Consider intersectionality, and information will need to be sought on the various challenges an employee could face, for example, a black cis-gendered gay woman and a white bi-sexual woman may come up against similar but also different difficulties in a country. Nuances in cultural attitudes across a country will also need to be recognised and highlighted in the resource. An employee may be in a heterosexual relationship, but they may have LGBT+ children, and the policy will need to be mindful of the experiences they may face too.
  • Communicate this information when available to employees on a regular basis, and not just before they are considering an international assignment. HR needs to position as the first port of call for information, so employees do not base decisions on hearsay and search engines, which could lead them basing a decision to move through inaccurate information.
  • Even if some international assignments are carried out on a remote basis, ie, from the UK, policies will still need to consider the potential experiences and impact this could have on LGBT+ individuals.
  • Offer emergency assistance, ie travel home for LGBT+ employees if the country's political and cultural situation renders their position unsafe.
  • If the employer/employee deems it high-risk to take their family who are LGBT+ dependent, but wishes to take on the international assignment, employers should consider offering more travel back home and annual leave.

Maintaining employees' safety when working abroad is a key responsibility for employers. In order to offer equal amounts of opportunities to LGBT+ employees, HR teams will need to remain well resourced and informed regarding safety and make sure that is communicated to staff.