This March, TikTok corporate parent ByteDance enjoyed a viral moment of its own when an email to its employees leaked online. “The core and focus of our product is to create an enriching and inclusive community culture, and to cheer on diversity,” the memo read. What stood out, however, was the explicit inclusion further down of “sexual orientation” as a type of diversity to be “cheered” — a first for a major Chinese internet company.
Such a move would have been unthinkable only a decade ago. Prior to starting my Ph.D., I spent over 10 years working in human resources in China. I have clear memories of how, back in the 2000s, the mere mention of “homosexuality” would elicit frowns from people who thought of it as “disgusting” or a sickness. In our internal manuals, the topic was strictly verboten: Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Things have changed, and not just at ByteDance. Recently one of my friends in the HR industry told me the luxury brand she works for specifically targets LGBT candidates, believing them to be “quite talented.” Still, there’s no denying firms like hers remain rare, or that sexual minorities continue to face barriers on the country’s job market.
To better understand the LGBT workplace experience, I conducted what I believe to be the first comprehensive survey of LGBT workers and workplace diversity policies in China. The first thing I noticed was a shift over time from overt discrimination to microaggressions. To give an idea of what things used to be like, in 2007, a fellow staff member in the company where I worked physically assaulted another employee, merely because he suspected his victim was gay. He also called for the man to be fired.
Nowadays, outward displays of aggression aren’t common. Only about 6% of respondents said they had experienced physical confrontations in the workplace. But 32.5% said they had to deal with verbal harassment or abuse; even more cited indirect but persistent “friendly” questions like “Why aren’t you married?”
“This kind of ‘caring’ makes me feel my unmarried status is a crime and not having a girlfriend is abnormal,” 33-year-old event coordinator David said in an interview. Many LGBT Chinese are not out of the closet at work, in part to avoid these interactions. Only 7.4% of respondents said they were fully out to their co-workers, while 37.5% said they felt the need to pass as straight. After Adam, a 29-year-old senior accountant disclosed his sexual orientation to his colleagues, who had seemed relatively open to sexual minorities, he noticed the atmosphere change. “Everyone goes out of their way to avoid mentioning sensitive (LGBT-related) topics,” he said.
Workplace discrimination also poses a challenge to sexual minorities’ career prospects. About 20% of respondents affirmed they had experienced discrimination due to their sexual orientation. Only around 10% of respondents said their employers include sexual minorities as a protected group in their diversity policies, compared with 93% of American Fortune 500 companies. Anna, a 34-year-old early education tutor in Beijing, told me she had been transferred to another department for pushing back against a colleague’s negative comments toward sexual minorities. “I was very upset since I was the best performer on my previous team,” she said. “Now I have to start from scratch again.”
My survey suggests foreign-invested firms in China are the most likely to have LGBT-inclusive diversity policies, followed by private enterprises, while government-affiliated organizations and state-owned enterprises rank last. That’s unfortunate. Studies have found that protecting sexual minorities can benefit companies almost as much as staff, boosting their corporate reputations and improving employee job satisfaction and well-being.
A few companies are ahead of the curve. Some firms hold regular workshops on topics related to sexual minorities. There, they invite employees who have disclosed their sexual orientation to share their experiences, which will hopefully promote a more inclusive corporate culture and encourage more employees to feel comfortable stepping out of the closet. These workshops also send strong signals to heterosexual employees that the company cares about sexual minorities, helping alleviate or eliminate discrimination.
Other companies adopt LGBT-specific programs like employee resource groups (ERGs). These groups give LGBT employees space to share their experiences and seek support from other members. ERGs are commonly initiated and led by LGBT employees, and they can provide an environment of security LGBT Chinese struggle to find elsewhere. As Crystal, a 31-year-old HR manager and ERG leader, put it: “I disclosed my sexual orientation to my colleagues after my company wrote protections for sexual minorities into its diversity policy. But I didn’t disclose my sexual orientation to my parents. I stay very late at work because this feels more like a home to me.”
As a former HR manager myself, I understand companies have to juggle a number of considerations when setting diversity policies. First, the main goal for most organizations is to maximize shareholder returns by making money and minimizing costs. Implementing a diversity policy requires investment, such as training costs. Without a clear return, companies often choose to be conservative when it comes to implementing LGBT-friendly new policies.
Second, many companies struggle to balance the needs of both the minority and majority. Although diversity policies protect sexual minorities, they may upset a firm’s heterosexual employees, many of whom still hold negative opinions about homosexuality.
These challenges are not insurmountable, however. For example, firms can conduct internal surveys to understand employees’ attitudes toward sexual minorities before they officially announce a diversity policy. An incremental and progressive approach can also be effective. A company could start with unofficial practices, such as team building or welcoming employees’ same-sex partners to official functions. Once new norms are established, all that’s left is to formalize them.
My survey is just a start when it comes to understanding the working lives of LGBT Chinese; there’s plenty more to be done. Ultimately, however, it’s on enterprises to abandon the irrational perception that being LGBT is abnormal and acknowledge the weight of research showing diversity policies benefit both employers and employees.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: People Visual, re-edit by Qi Ya/Sixth Tone)