Experiencing new cultures and exploring their differences can be a major part of the appeal of an international assignment. But what happens if the new culture has values that are incompatible with the assignee’s values? Even more worrying, what if the culture clashes with an assignee’s core identity? The challenges faced by LGBTQ+ assignees are very real and Global Mobility has a duty of care to ensure that their assignees are fully aware of them.
Attitudes to LGBTQ+ assignees
Many countries the world over have seen attitudes toward sexuality change dramatically over the last fifty years or more.
Tolerance towards LGBTQ+ relationships has become normal, and more and more countries have legally recognized non-traditional family structures. This tolerance, however, is the cause of more and more cultural issues, especially in more religiously oriented societies.
Let’s take one real case.
A UK based company decided to send an Indian national on assignment to Miami for three years. During the assignment, the male employee came out as gay and married his partner. At the end of the assignment, the organization either wanted to send him back to Mumbai or send on a new assignment to Kenya.
In both countries, same-sex relationships are illegal; the assignee’s US visa had expired and he had no legal basis to reside in a different country.
What would the future hold for him and his husband?
LGBTQ+ assignees are posing questions like the above that many global mobility teams are not yet ready to answer.
The Wall Street Journal published an article about the experiences of several LGBTQ+ assignees and their challenges in many different countries.
There are two major areas that must be considered: legal and social.
For LGBTQ+ assignees, accepting an international assignment to a country where LGBTQ+ rights are not recognized presents a number of basic problems.
Many countries may not accept LGBTQ+ relationships for immigration purposes, so the assignee is faced with leaving their family behind or refusing the assignment.
Married and single assignees may face prosecution and severe penalty (up to the death penalty) for engaging in consensual sexual activity between people of the same sex.
2. Social impact
For some LGBTQ+ employees, making a decision about an expatriate assignment seems straightforward.
However, once they have researched the legal position of their new country to their satisfaction, they may be unaware of the social impact of their sexuality.
Unfortunately, in some countries, the legal position may not be wholly compatible with the country’s social attitudes. For example, expatriates from the LGBTQ+ communities moving to South Africa may find that they are legally protected but not always openly accepted in many environments.
In Russia, same-sex relationships are not forbidden by law, although not recognized. However, there are strict laws which prevent LGBTQ+ couples discussing their sexuality with children; Russian society is increasingly homophobic to the point of violent aggression towards LGBTQ+ assignees.
3. At work
Assignees typically accept an assignment abroad with the same employer they work for in their home country. In many ways, this is the one constant in the expat’s life during a global relocation.
However, moving to another branch or subsidiary office of your organization does not necessarily mean that values and attitudes in these offices are the same – in spite of the best will of the company’s hierarchy.
LGBTQ+ assignees should make sure they understand the social and cultural attitudes of their host country in the workplace as well.
These can vary tremendously depending on a wide range of factors, including the line of business and the level of public tolerance towards LGBTQ+ topics and discussions.
How can LGBT+ assignees navigate such challenges
- Learn both the legalities and attitudes of your new country
Research from Mercer shows that nearly two-thirds (61%) of organizations are unaware of the local and cultural environment or legal conditions for LGBTQ+ employees in all the locations they operate.
The sexual orientation map published by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association is a useful starting point.
- Understand the social norms that will best serve you and your lifestyle abroad
These norms can vary significantly depending on a wide range of factors including the level of public tolerance towards LGBTQ+ topics and discussions. This may include practices that are unpalatable or that you thought were confined to history, such as ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.
- Recognize that in some cultures, social norms and tolerance may be different for assignees
In some cultures, social norms and tolerance may be different for assignees than they are for nationals of the host country. For others, there may be an implicit tolerance that does not or cannot extend into a public environment.
- Get as much support as possible from your employer
Both in your host country and at home. Creative organizations can help find ways for LGBTQ+ employees and their families to settle into less tolerant environments if they are otherwise prepared to accept an assignment abroad.
Global Mobility professionals have a duty of care to their assignees which extends to their accompanying families too.
- Get realistic daily living and safety advice for your host country
Especially if accepting an assignment in a hostile environment. Global Mobility professionals are key to this process.
Assignees can also get professional advice from organizations such as Stonewall, which keep up-to-date information by country on issues facing LGBTQ+ assignees.
- Recognize that sometimes, it’s not always about your LGBTQ+ identity
Sometimes, it’s simply because you are different as a generic foreigner in a foreign land. Adapting to life in a new country is a challenge for anyone regardless of sexuality, gender, race or any other factor.
Be aware not beware
As much as this last point rings true, there are ways in which LGBTQ+ assignees can prepare themselves pre-assignment. As with all societal changes, the pace of change in attitudes towards sexuality varies across the globe. For this reason, the assignees level of awareness and understanding of the challenges that may face them can be the difference between assignment success and failure.