Do companies support LGBT staff in China?

Progress is slow when it comes to conditions for gay staff

When the US legalised gay marriage, Chinese companies fell over themselves to celebrate the announcement. Didi Dache turned the markers for taxicabs rainbow coloured, video streaming service Youku overset their logo with a proud rainbow on Weibo, and online giant Tmall posted the message ‘Love is enough’ to its 10 million followers on microblog service Weibo.

Advertising to gay consumers in China has been on the rise this year, as companies started to discover both scope for experimentation with LGBT messages in advertising, and a massive market to sell to. Yet while Chinese companies may have realised the power of gay consumers, when it comes to conditions for gay staff in their own companies, progress is slower.

According to Tom Mountford, a barrister associated with human rights organisation Outright International, ‘the legal status and position of LGBT people is unclear, with varying official treatment across different areas of law in China.’ He says there is no anti-discrimination provision for LGBT people at work under Chinese Labour Law. Although the Labour Law specifically protects workers against discrimination on the basis of a person’s ethnicity, gender or religion, nothing details discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity.

This becomes particularly significant given anecdotal evidence that Chinese gay people can and do face discrimination at work, particularly at more traditional companies with rigid structures. One woman we speak to, who wished to remain unnamed, said she left her last job at a state-owned company to work at a foreign business in Shanghai, because she knew the Chinese company would not accept her sexuality. A friend of hers in the same office had been fired shortly after coming out, she said, although the company cited other reasons.

To date, there has been only one case where an employee has sued a company in China for unfair dismissal on the grounds of their sexuality. Last January, a Chinese court heard the country’s first lawsuit over gay workplace discrimination, brought by a man known only under the pseudonym ‘Mu Yi’, who was fired after he was revealed as gay in a viral online video. His employer claimed he had been dismissed for an allegedly ‘poor service attitude’.

The legal case was not a straightforward one – for one thing, the viral video featured Mu Yi in an argument with another man on the street, believed to be an online hook-up which went wrong. Although the case was ultimately thrown out by the court, the fact it initially made it to trial was still an important milestone in the progression of gay rights in China.

A recent survey of 20,000 Chinese gay people by nonprofit organisation WorkForLGBT revealed that while 20 percent of women and 12 percent of men were out to some close colleagues, only 7 percent of women and 3 percent of men were out to their bosses. Almost a third of respondents felt their employer was actively unfriendly towards the gay community; nearly half said they were worried about discrimination at work if they came out.

Darren Burns, president of PR firm Weber Shandwick in China, says bosses need to create a culture of acceptance, without putting pressure on any LGBT employees to come out. ‘We try and make an environment where you can be as out or in as you want to be,’ he says. ‘We tend to hire people from all kinds of backgrounds and that helps to create that openness. We want people to know they can be themselves at work.

‘In workplaces in China there can be insensitivity, jokes about people being gay, and that might be hurtful. I think it’s often just ignorance, rather than anything malicious.’

He also argues that companies can send a strong message to their employees by getting involved in diversity research and events, but says that more needs to be done. ‘I worry a lot of international companies here are quite contradictory,’ he adds. ‘They talk about diversity and policies in the UK and US, but don’t do it here.’

In China, as globally, the industry you work in can make a big difference to the inclusivity of the workplace. Min Yoo, managing director for China and Korea at YouGov Asia Pacific, who compiled the recent LGBT research together with WorkForLGBT, says that certain industries are more ‘gay-friendly,’ and that becomes a virtuous circle. ‘It has to do with both knowledge and exposure,’ he says. ‘There is a relationship between people knowing someone who is LGBT, and having general LGBT acceptance. It is almost a self-prophesying activity, in that if the LGBT community were more open and more out, then in turn other people would become more accepting as well.’

When it comes to companies looking inward rather than just at selling opportunities, the community itself has a vital role to play, agrees Steven Bielinski, founder of WorkforLGBT. ‘The numbers of people who are out at work are still very low,’ he says. ‘But companies aren’t going to start being more open about these issues by themselves. Many companies think they don’t have any gay employees, so they don’t need to worry about inclusivity policies. But as more people come out, they can make the choice to work for more open companies who make their policies clear.’

As corporate culture evolves in China, the real change looks like it will be bottom up, as employees vote with their feet and reject offices which don’t support their lifestyle choices. Savvy companies will want to set the tone now, and send out the right message. ‘It’s a good thing to do, but it also helps our business,’ says Burns. ‘The biggest problem we have is finding the right people. If we can make ourselves as inclusive and open as we can, then we can attract a lot of talent that other people might not.’