It Is Time to Make Employment Benefits More Inclusive

THE The Great Resignation has accelerated the pace of change in employment, and employers are taking a number of steps to ensure their employees are reasonably happy with their jobs.

The Employment Benefits Package is a way for employers to show their commitment to their employees, attract top talent and maintain employee satisfaction. Several studies around the world have shown that employees are more likely to stay with an employer that offers a better benefits package. Most of these employee benefits are in addition to minimum statutory requirements, and some of these benefits are available to employees and their families.

However, family circles are usually limited to the spouse and minor children of a married worker. This definition of family seems anachronistic and does not seem to have evolved over time. For example, most employers in India still only provide health insurance to a worker’s heterosexual spouse and children, and cohabiting or same-sex partners are not covered. This seems unusual given the changing legal landscape and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (‘DE&I’) policies that have become the norm around the world.

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Changing legal landscape

In India, marriage is legally between a biological male and a biological female; thus a family unit consists of husband, wife and children. This was the definition most employers rely on when awarding benefits to their employees. However, recent court rulings show that the legal landscape is rapidly changing and several gray areas are developing.

Most employers in India still only offer health insurance to a worker’s heterosexual spouse and children, and cohabiting or same-sex partners are not covered. This seems unusual given the changing legal landscape and diversity, equality and inclusion policies that have become the norm around the world.

Recently, the Supreme Court of India in Deepika Singh against Central Administrative Court & Ors. (2022), noted that while the family is legally and socially an unchanging unit of mother and father, this needs to change over time as many families do not fit into this straitjacket. The court said family relationships could take the form of unmarried cohabitation or queer relationships, which should be considered.

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Of course, this was only a judicial finding in the decision on maternity benefit and thus does not change anything in the employer’s legal obligations. But together with the Court’s rulings on transgender rights, the decriminalization of same-sex relationships and the recognition of civil partners’ rights, it clearly shows the direction in which the law in India is developing.

A quick look at the legal landscape of the United States, United Kingdom and Europe shows that in all of these jurisdictions the definition of family for employee benefit purposes has expanded and the benefits available to an employee’s heterosexual spouse have expanded usually also for a same-sex spouse or a partner living in the household. Anything else can be considered discrimination and thus declared illegal.

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While the legal mandate in these jurisdictions does not mandate inclusion practices, employers invariably accept, as part of their DE&I policies, practices that seek to make the workplace more inclusive by not challenging employees’ personal choices regarding family and the benefits such as expanding health insurance and parental allowance without discrimination.

The way forward

As times change, more and more people are accepting and welcoming their identities that may not align with society’s traditionally accepted mores. Thus, when employees with personal choices that do not conform to society’s traditional perceptions are unbenefited, employees are deprived of a sense of belonging, leading to dissatisfied employees and higher turnover rates.

Although there is no legal obligation to accept a broader meaning and expand benefits, neither does the law restrict employers from taking this approach. Using a broader definition of family, and thereby expanding the scope of employee benefits, will make the company more attractive and thus help attract and retain talent from a broader group of people. Several recent surveys show that job seekers prefer companies with inclusive policies and a diverse workforce.

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In addition, a diverse and well-managed workforce with different experiences and inputs will increase productivity and therefore profitability of the company. A diverse workforce helps the company understand and connect with customers from diverse backgrounds, which leads to the promotion of the business. It can also make the company more attractive to potential customers in countries like the US, Europe, and the UK, where an inclusive workplace is quickly becoming a business requirement.

Small changes like enabling health insurance for a same-sex spouse or domestic partner do not add a significant additional burden to the employer, but go a long way in ensuring that employees from different identity groups do not feel out of place. It can also reduce unconscious workplace bias towards these employees, sending the message that there is nothing unacceptable about their personal choices and that the employer sees them as equal to other employees.

Positive social change is the buzzword most companies use and try to associate with. Treating their employees fairly with different personal choices through small actions will go a long way towards creating that positive social change at no extra cost.

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