When the initiative Jsme fér started to campaign for gay and lesbian couples to have the right to marry, it became apparent that the Czech public labours under a great delusion. Most people believed that registered partnerships for same-sex couples are the same thing as marriage. But there are, in fact, fundamental differences between registration and marriage, the most significant being that people in same-sex unions cannot own joint property, do not receive a widow’s/widower’s pension and are not able to adopt their partner’s children. Yet the Czech state treats heterosexuals differently from LBGT people in more than one hundred instances in Czech law, and it will take Parliament a very long time to remove these obvious discriminations. Employers who are aware of the benefits of an open working environment can correct some of the errors in the law and provide their LBGT employees with the same conditions as their heterosexual colleagues.
Why make employee benefits more difficult than they have to be? Modifying internal regulations is frequently complicated, and in addition, management may risk negative feedback from more conservative employees. Nevertheless, both research and practice show that employees perform better if they can be themselves in the workplace. They are more motivated and more loyal to their employer, who will thus save the cost of recruiting and training new staff. Imagine being gay and having to hide your sexual orientation from your colleagues. You are constantly trying not to give yourself away. You have to lie about who you went on holiday with, who you live with. Or as a trans person, you prefer not to drink while at work, from horror of the conflict that could arise if you need to go to the toilet. In an open working environment, you could devote to your work all the energy and intellectual effort that you use for this constant concealment.
What needs to be done
This is not to say that legislators have completely failed LGBT people. The Labour Code now allows either a partner or a spouse to collect an employee’s pay on the basis of a power of attorney. A partner is considered a family member for travel expenses purposes. A partner has the right to a one-off survivor’s compensation payment if an employee dies, just as a spouse does. And an employment relationship cannot be created either between spouses or between partners.
“Despite this, we can find a number of inconsistencies in the law that exclude same-sex partners from certain rights. I do not see this as intentional, but rather as an omission which nobody has yet corrected,” points out Iva Bilinská from the law firm Allen & Overy. A classic example is the right to a wage or financial bonus after the death of an employee, a right that only the spouse, children and parents have. Registered partners are not mentioned here and they would receive money only after inheritance proceedings, in which, of course, they may not even be involved. The problem that we currently need to find a viable solution for is staff body searches. In line with the Labour Code, these must be carried out by a person of the same sex, which will not be pleasant for trans people. But if a trans woman (whose ID card states she is male) asks her employer if she can be searched by a female security guard, this could be unpleasant for the security guard too.
The most frequent cases of discrimination against LGBT employees involve time off for weddings and funerals. Thanks to Government Regulation 590/2006, heterosexual employees have the right to two days off for their own wedding, of which they will receive full pay for one. On the death of a spouse, common-law spouse or child, an employee is entitled to two days off work on full pay. The Regulation does not mention registered partners in any of these cases, to whom the government does not give paid leave either for their registration ceremonies or for their partners’ funerals. “What is interesting is that the more recent Government Regulation, no 135/2015, regarding civil servants, already recognises registered partners. Civil servants get only one day off for registration, but it is paid,” says Iva Bilinská.
Unlike discriminatory laws, the most common employee benefits that businesses offer relate to leave following the birth of a child, according to Iva Bilinská. Many companies have adapted their internal rules on the conditions for paternity leave. A good number of them already offered their employees far better benefits, such as leave of one week or even 10 days on full pay. “The most difficult thing when introducing fair benefits is deciding who to include, so that the procedure is really not discriminatory,” says Iva Bilinská.
Equal access needs harmonised terms and conditions
At Accenture, which adopted the principles of LGBT equality in 2016, the introduction of fair benefits began by tweaking definitions. “The basic idea was to bring what we give to LGBT employees into line with what we give to their heterosexual colleagues. It wasn’t about introducing special benefits for LGBT employees,” says Alan Neradný, head of Accenture’s Legal and Compliance team.
A team of lawyers has worked with HR to open up every single benefit and to amend its wording so that it was also available to LGBT employees. Ultimately, they went even further and introduced a uniform definition for registrations and weddings – Accenture now uses the term “wedding” for both. As a result, the Government Regulation on Personal Circumstances, which only mentions the concept of marriage, also began to apply to same-sex couples within this company.
This year the company decided to take another step and extended the definition of a partnership. They began to take “partner” to mean any person with whom the employee lives in a close relationship, in a joint household with shared costs, and who would be affected by anything that affects the employee. “Partners, for us, are not just registered couples, but also unmarried couples. This change will benefit not just the LGBT community but also heterosexual employees shacked up together. We told ourselves that, if we were going to expand the benefit, we should offer it to the widest possible group of people, no exceptions,” Alan Neradný explains.
Part of this year’s revision of employee benefits within Accenture was also a response to the paternity leave introduced by the state. “If we take that in the purely biological sense, paternity leave would not apply to many people,” says Alan Neradný. To ensure that the leave entitlement applies to all family types, Accenture has replaced the unfortunate name ‘paternity leave’ with their own: ‘Leave on the birth of a child or when a child is taken into a partner’s care’. This change means that leave is open not just to newly fledged daddies, but also for social (read: non-biological) parents in same-sex families, or even in cases where a woman in a heterosexual relationship has a child but the child’s father is another man. “In the spirit of non-discrimination, we also granted non-biological parent status to men in heterosexual couples,” adds Alan Neradný happily. The system is built on human decency and so far, the company has no experience of anyone, either LGBT or heterosexual, abusing benefits.
Changing directives must pass into corporate culture
Vodafone has been on the fair benefits path since 2015. It introduced the same leave entitlement for same-sex couples as the state guarantees to married couples. This year, it embedded paternity leave into its employee benefits, resolving the issue with a new benefit – it now pays, from its own pocket, the same allowance to social parents from same-sex couples that the state pays to fathers.
“Equalising internal regulations is one thing. But the texts of any directives must then be reflected in corporate culture,” argues HR Business Partner Jana Vychroňová, who in September took up the position of Diversity & Inclusion Manager. Vodafone has been building an open environment throughout the year with training workshops, inspirational lectures and various events. For example, in 2015 the company became a partner of the online LGBT counselling service Sbarvouven.cz, operated by Prague Pride. Employees can participate in discussions with representatives of the Counselling Centre, join in FUN & RUN races, the proceeds of which go to the counselling centre, or contribute to the employee fundraising campaign for the centre; Vodafone has pledged to match the proceeds. The company always ceremonially hands over the cheque in October, on Spirit Day.
Jana Vychroňová acknowledges that there are various responses to creating LGBT equality within the firm among the large number of employees with Vodafone contracts. Sometimes objections are raised about why the company is doing this and whether by any chance it is doing too much for the LGBT community. Open, continuous communication is therefore vital, so the company can explain why it is paying so much attention to this issue.
“For example, when Vodafone began to support the Jsme fér initiative for marriage for gay and lesbian couples, we had to explain to the employees that there are fundamental differences between marriages and registered partnerships. Many people were surprised because they thought that they were really one and the same. When they learned how it actually is, they changed their minds and began to agree to support the initiative,” says Jana Vychroňová, describing a specific case.
Don’t reinvent the wheel – businesses sharing their knowledge
Pride Business Forum offers assistance to companies and government bodies interested in introducing LGBT equality in the workplace but who are new to the issues. It is the only platform in the Czech Republic devoted to diversity and the equality of LGBT employees, and it insists that companies exchange good practice. Member companies talk about HR policies, employee benefits, LGBT internal employee groups, and internal and external communication at an annual conference, but also in meetings and workshops throughout the year. They share their fair internal rules, the texts of contracts and other documents which others may be able to use as templates. A mentoring programme is also about to launch, in which member firms offer their experience to those who are just beginning to tackle diversity. More information is available at www.pridebusinessforum.cz.
(for September issue of Moderní řízení magazín)