In our current political conversations about transgender rights, bathrooms and locker rooms are getting all of the attention but in the workplace, the respectful inclusion of transgender employees goes well beyond the bathroom. Working with employers who have had experiences with openly transgender employees in the workplace, has generated some important lessons learned that may be helpful to others looking to ensure compliant and inclusive practices.
Don’t make an employee the “face” of all things transgender. No one wants to feel like the token employee by being asked to answer questions about “all” or “others” of that same type, trait, or protective status. Questions should be asked of a transgender individual as an individual. Encourage other employees, especially those expressing discomfort or opposition, to focus on the transgender employee as an individual. It isn’t necessary to convince all employees that they must embrace the morality of all transgender identities; the focus should be as simple as just treating this employee with respect. A transgender female who transitioned in her workplace at a large airplane manufacturing company in Washington told me: “I still just want to be treated like other coworkers.”
Don’t force an employee into the role of “educator.” It shouldn’t be assumed that an openly transgender individual in the workplace welcomes the opportunity to educate others about “being transgender.” One suggestion I’ve heard from both employers and transgender individuals is to seek out a transgender advocate or consultant who can speak frankly with managers and coworkers and answer questions. A consultant can educate the workplace about transgender inclusion and acceptance while providing an opportunity for employees to ask candid questions without the fear of recourse or offending a transgender coworker. The opportunity to speak with a consultant can go a long way in alleviating the fears employees may have about working with a employee, which is an important step toward respect and acceptance.
Don’t go overboard with efforts to be supportive. Implementing a transition plan for a transgender employee who hasn’t even decided if or when to finalize a transition is not likely to be received well… by anyone. After all, an employee who privately tells HR that he’s gay isn’t necessarily inviting a ticker-tape parade (or the workplace equivalent – cake in the conference room) to celebrate his “coming out.” Let the employee drive the process and the timing. Though, questions like, “How can the company support you?” or “How would you like me to help?” may be welcomed.
Find your own comfort zone. Employers report success in creating an inclusive culture when managers and HR convey comfort and acceptance. It is helpful to have the leadership team outline an action plan so everyone is on board and knows what to expect. Setting an expectation of acceptance with actions, body language, and sincere support makes others more likely to meet that expectation. Telling clients, for example, that a transgender employee has been and will continue to be a valuable member of the team means so much more than saying “the law requires us to not discriminate.” One plastic parts manufacturer in California with a long-term, successful sales rep who transitioned from male to female approached the transition as a collaborative partnership. The transgender employee and supervisor made a joint announcement to customers about the transition, emphasizing that it would have no impact on the quality of products or services. They also set up joint meetings with customers prior to the transition, to provide notice that the sales rep would be presenting as female on future calls, explain how the company would handle the transition, and re-emphasize that the customer’s experience of quality and service would not change. The result? The company retained every single client.
Remember to support all employees. Several employers who have had an employee transition said that one of the biggest challenges was the emotional reaction of other employees who experienced grief and mourning of the “loss.” The coworker and friend they knew as “Ashley” is gone, and “Brian” has appeared in her place. Change can be hard, even if it’s not considered “negative.” Helping other employees cope, while still ensuring that Brian feels supported and included, can be a tough tightrope to walk. The key to success, according to a transgender female who transitioned at a very large retail “box” store in Washington, is “acceptance by peers.” Utilize your Employee Assistance Program to help everyone in the workplace adapt successfully: managers, coworkers, the transitioning employee, and you too.
Kandis Sells is an employment and labor attorney with Vigilant and graduate of the University of Washington School of Law, J.D. She will be co-presenting a session titled “Walking the Transgender Tightrope in the Modern Workplace” at the 2016 Northwest Human Resource Management Association (NHRMA) Annual Conference and Tradeshow at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, on September 8th.