Supporting LGBT travellers is becoming an important part of duty-of-care responsibilities, taking account of changing laws and regional attitudes
Russia, Russia, Russia – it’s been almost impossible to ignore the media obsession with the country this year. There has been the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, talk of cyber warfare and the US probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Meanwhile, the country will be hosting the World Cup football tournament this summer.
Russia is also a good case study of the complexities and potential problems faced by LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) travellers. While same-gender sexual relations are legal in Russia, the country implemented a law in 2013 that bans the “promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” – a move that has led to reports of increased harassment, threats and attacks on LGBT people.
Equality campaign group FARE has even warned LGBT visitors to the World Cup that they may not be safe if they hold hands in public in certain host cities and is producing a guide for LGBT fans giving advice on how to avoid potential problems during the tournament.
Having said that, Russia is relatively liberal compared to some countries’ legal position on LGBT relationships. According to a report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), there are 72 countries that continue to criminalise same-gender sexual acts between consenting adults, including eight nations that impose the death penalty for these activities.
However, it’s not all bad news – Aengus Carroll, co-author of the ILGA’s report State Sponsored Homophobia: A World Survey of Laws: criminalisation, protection and recognition of same-sex love, says that laws criminalising same-sex sexual acts have been “slowly annually decreasing”, while the number of countries allowing same-sex marriage has also been rising, with Australia becoming the latest to change its laws on the issue.
So what does this mean for LGBT business travellers and the organisations that may require them to travel to non gay-friendly destinations? What sort of advice and support should travel managers provide for their LGBT employees as part of their duty-of-care obligations?
LGBT publication Man About World has produced its own guide to business travel that focuses on the potential problems faced by road warriors, including anecdotes from travellers about their experiences visiting different parts of the world with very different laws and social attitudes.
“Vacation travellers can choose their destinations but business travellers don’t have that luxury,” stresses the guide. “We go where the job sends us and when the job sends us to a country where sexual orientation or gender identity are criminalised or marginalised, it adds layers of complexity.”
Jean-Marie Navetta, director of learning and inclusion at US-based LGBT network PFLAG National, adds: “The reality of the situation is that in a number of countries – and, in some cases, in parts or regions of some countries – the world remains a very unsafe place for LGBT travellers.
“If assignments are made to these locations, there needs to be a real awareness that this is a very tangible threat for LGBT employees. This kind of education needs to happen so employees who have disclosed their sexual orientation or gender identity are briefed, and organisations have advice on working in the country and plans should anything go awry.”
Many organisations and companies use specialist security companies to provide updated advice and guidance for LGBT business travellers, including employees who may be seconded for several weeks or months to another country with very different laws and social attitudes than the UK or other parts of the Western world.
Erika Weisbrod, director, security solutions – Americas, at security firm International SOS and Control Risks, says: “Organisations should develop and maintain inclusive policies and procedures to support a diverse workforce and meet their duty-of-care requirements. Policies and procedures should incorporate inclusive training, pre-travel advice and awareness, educating travellers on what to expect when on assignment, as well as what to do and whom to call in case of an emergency.
“Travellers should be made aware of specific legal or social attitudes at their destination. This is another example of how pre-travel advice can be especially helpful,” she adds.
One of the issues organisations face is that they probably will not know exactly how many of their employees identify as LGBT, as some may choose to keep this information confidential. This makes having strong diversity and equality policies crucial so that an employer can try to improve duty-of-care to all travellers, regardless of sexuality or gender identity.
Being seen as a good employer for LGBT people by ensuring workplace inclusivity and equality is becoming increasingly important. LGBT rights group Stonewell produces an annual list of the UK’s top 100 employers through its Workplace Equality Index, which measures how organisations create an inclusive environment, communicate their commitment to LGBT equality and have visible LGBT role models.
London-based law firm Pinsent Masons has ranked second on Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index for the past two years and this culture of inclusiveness is reflected in the way it manages travel.
Rosie Mohammad, Pinsent Masons’ head of travel, says: “We are respectful of local laws and customs but we are also committed to upholding our values and doing business responsibly wherever we work. Our first priority is the safety of our staff; we recognise the need to ensure people who identify as LGBT are aware of the risks and the legal and cultural differences, and are sufficiently prepared before undertaking international secondments.”
The firm has also created diversity network groups where experienced travellers can give “confidential support and guidance” to employees who have concerns about travelling to particular countries or regions. “Within the LGBT network, we have created a contact list of people along with the countries they have worked in to make it easier to access support and expertise quickly,” explains Mohammad.
Pinsent Masons is also keen to ensure that the careers of LGBT employees are not adversely affected if they turn down a travelling opportunity for personal reasons. Kate Fergusson, the firm’s head of responsible business, adds: “Our policy is very clear that people will not be disadvantaged if they turn down an opportunity for international travel because of, for example, their sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Having employee network groups is crucial to successfully dealing with issues that LGBT travellers can face on the road, agrees International SOS’s Weisbrod, who adds that organisations also need to “respect confidentiality and allow for anonymity” of employees who do not want to disclose personal issues.
“Employee resource groups, such as an LGBT internal advocacy and support group, help staff find support, information and assessment before taking overseas work and travel assignments,” she says.
One of the challenges of dealing with these issues is that laws (and whether they are actually enforced, or not, in certain countries) can change in some destinations – often for the better but sometimes for the worse. This means that buyers and HR departments have to work closely together to ensure advice is kept up to date. Social attitudes can often be slower to change in a country, regardless of the legal landscape, which travellers need to be aware of, as well.
There can also be regional differences within some countries between a major city and a more socially conservative rural area where what is socially acceptable varies enormously. For example, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued warnings in 2016 for LGBT travellers to be careful in two US states – North Carolina and Mississippi – due to the passing of legislation in those states. The FCO has a dedicated section for LGBT travellers giving general advice about what precautions to take when on the road in less LGBT-tolerant destinations, alongside specific country advice.
The FCO and the Passport Office also offer guidance for transgender travellers who “sometimes face difficulties or delays at border controls overseas if they present as a different gender to what is stated in their passport”.
There are plenty of other external resources provided by LGBT groups such as ILGA, International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), human rights campaign group Out Right Action International and UK-based Stonewall.
But the most important responsibility lies within the traveller’s organisation itself – not just in how it deals with diversity culturally but also in setting up the appropriate internal networks and resources to help LGBT travellers without compromising their confidentially and privacy.
“Ensuring that your resources and tools are accurate and inclusive takes education, and it needs to be ongoing,” says Jean-Marie Navetta of PFLAG. “Making sure that there are people or organisations that companies know and trust to serve as advisors is a practical and effective step.
“Review your policies annually to make sure that the language is current – such as moving away from gendered his/her language to they/them – and that the policies reflect current laws,” she adds. “When it comes to being inclusive, the job is constantly evolving.”
Supporting LGBT travellers is becoming a more important part of employers’ duty-of-care responsibilities, but it needs to be part of a wider corporate inclusivity policy. It is a complex area, requiring senior management buy-in and a commitment to creating a more “accepting culture”.
But it is also good for business with evidence that LGBT people who feel they have to “stay in the closet” due to an “unwelcoming” culture at work are less productive – by up to 30 per cent, according to a survey by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which also found that 26 per cent of LGBT staff chose to stay with an organisation because of its “accepting” environment.