Letting LGBTQ Staff Succeed Abroad

by Matthew Thacker, Senior Manager for Global Security at PSI, and Erika Weisbrod, Regional Security Manager at International SOS

The article below originally appeared on Inside NGO’s blog.


Security and human resources should always work in tandem to prevent, respond to and support personnel and their families in safety and security situations. As each organization’s understanding and experience with duty of care and security incidents evolves, the definition of staff “well-being,” needs and organizational obligations continues to grow. And diverse, global workforces are no longer just a buzzword or an HR dream—they’ve become the norm in the NGO community. However, have NGO HR and security policies kept up with the changing face of their workforce—different cultures, ethnicities and beliefs? And, more difficult or impossible to identify—sexual orientation and identity?

Duty of care—planning for foreseeable risks and threats—is an important part of any organization’s process, not only when sending staff or volunteers abroad, but also for expatriates and local nationals. Organizations need to have a plan. They need to have inclusive policies and procedures in place to meet their duty of care requirements that support a diverse workforce. Training and pre-travel advice and awareness should be a big part of this, letting employees know what to expect when on assignment as well as what to do and whom to call in case of an emergency. It also includes the ability to push comprehensive information to them before, during, and after a trip.

Over 70 countries have laws that criminalize homosexuality, with 10 of them punishable by death. Separately, but equally important, are the cultural and societal views and norms related to the LGBTQ community—homosexuality may not be illegal in a country, but it may still be morally unacceptable and shunned by locals. For LGBTQ staff, this can become a security threat if they are exposed; they can be blackmailed to keep their secret; they may be sexually assaulted to “fix” or “cure” them; or the stress of keeping a secret and lying to everyone around them can lead to anxiety, depression and burnout. A longitudinal study on mental health in aid workers published in PLoS ONE in 2012 found that two factors that lessened chances of depression and burnout among aid workers included having “strong team leader cohesion” and “using social support as coping mechanisms”; these two factors may both disappear for some LGBTQ staff.

Safety, security and operational threats related to LGBTQ staff and operations are both internal and external. Internal issues include morality, factionalism within the office, isolation of staff members, and psychosocial wellness. Externally, the organization’s association with LGBTQ staff or issues can cause negative media attention, diplomatic and government relations issues, reputational damage, implementing partner problems and direct threats to the office and staff. National staff who identify as LGBTQ, or are labeled that way as a result of the work they do, face even more dangers than the international staff. The national staff may not live in secured housing that would be compliant with the organization’s minimum security standards. They are often the field-level “front line” workers who interact most visibly and directly with LGBTQ populations in a country. And, importantly, they are expected to think, act and follow cultural and traditional practices and beliefs which can be narrow and restrictive.

Therefore, security and HR policies must work together to support the LGBTQ workforce, at times without knowing the exact number of employees it may affect. In discussions with LGBTQ development workers, they have identified some important points to help them feel supported by their employer: employee resource groups, such as an LGBTQ internal advocacy and support group, help staff find support, information and assessment before taking overseas work and travel assignments; safe spaces and/or advocates who can provide emotional support and confidentiality; and an organizational culture which embraces diversity in all its forms.

Meeting duty of care obligations from the employer side includes a few key steps.

  1. Identify location-specific risks, such as including LGBT acceptance or laws as part of a country assessment.
  2. Educate travelers and empower them to make their own decisions using the information and resources you provide, i.e. a shared page with LGBTQ links and articles for overseas information.
  3. Respect confidentiality and allow for anonymity. Staff should feel comfortable self-identifying as LGBTQ, but some staff may not be willing or able to reach out; they should still be able to access the same levels of information.
  4. Provide external resources and subject-matter experts where necessary. LGBTQ travel associations and rights and advocacy groups may provide a deeper perspective on “what it’s like” to be in one of these countries. Wellness professionals who specialize in LGBTQ issues and development work can give targeted counseling and healthy coping strategies to address the feelings of isolation and cultural issues. Nobody expects the organization to have all the answers and experts internally; a strong NGO should know when to seek outside partners or consultants to strengthen internal structures.
  5. Develop or design all policies to be inclusive, and “stress test” them with scenarios involving LGBTQ staff. The LGBTQ group at the NGO is a good clearinghouse for draft policies, or to find out what policies are missing.
  6. Ensure special focus on incident management planning and response. LGBTQ security incidents may quickly become more complicated due to legal issues, medical issues, national laws, confidentiality, the high risk of threats being internal to the NGO and increased sensitivities around contacting emergency contacts.

It is important to understand the challenges that LGBTQ staff face when working internationally, and to keep up on developments. Ensuring the safety and security of your LGBTQ travelers is a team effort, requiring input and knowledge from HR, travel, security, medical, and others. It’s all about working toward the shared goal of keeping all travelers healthy and safe, and allowing them to focus solely on – and succeed at — their jobs at hand.