Human Resources

How To Make Your Workplace A Safe Space for Trans Employees

SCOTUS just affirmed the rights of transgender employees. Is your company doing its part to make the workplace an inclusive space?

On June 15, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the Civil Rights Act, which prevents sex discrimination, also applies to discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Prior to this federal ruling, appallingly, workplace discrimination against transgender and nonbinary people was actually legal across wide swaths of the country.  In fact, more than half of states currently do not have laws that protect transgender employees from employment discrimination, according to the Human Rights Campaign. That grim statistic is compounded by the fact that transgender workers can face bias getting hired in the first place.

“One of the first barriers that many transgender people face is just getting in the door,” said Beck Bailey, director of the Workplace Equality Program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

Equality of opportunity is a great place to start, but it’s just a beginning. A truly inclusive and affirming workplace needs a company nondiscrimination policy that forbids discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression alongside age, race and sex. Additionally, workplaces should also develop policies that address specific needs, both for existing transgender employees and for workers who may potentially transition in the future.

These policies need to genuinely align with the values of the workplace, explained Jennifer Litner, LMFT, a human sexuality educator who has conducted inclusivity trainings for professional teams. In other words, if your company is going to talk the talk about inclusivity, it’s important to walk the walk.

Here are some of the top ways that companies can promote inclusivity for transgender employees in the workplace.

An employee’s legal name shouldn’t required for email and security badges.

Many trans people legally change their names from the one that was given to them at birth to a name they’ve chosen themselves. In doing so, their name and gender changed on state and federal IDs, such as a driver’s license or birth certificate. This process varies state by state, is accompanied by fees and can take months to be resolved (as many bureaucratic processes unfortunately do).

A transgender employee may still be required by law to use the name given to them at birth — called a dead name — on paperwork, such as tax forms, until the legal name change goes through. “If you have a rule where your name on your security badge has to be your legal name, then that could be difficult for some trans people who have socially transitioned, but they haven’t been able to update their legal documents,” explained Bailey.

Using your employee’s wrong name and their wrong pronouns are both forms of misgendering. At minimum, refusing to use your transgender employee’s name is dehumanizing; at worst, it is creating a hostile work environment. Your workplace can take some steps to make sure their trans workers are being called by the correct names in other places, like on security badges, signs on office doors, the company directory and email conventions.

HRC also provides guidelines on collecting demographic data from employees. These initiatives may be intended to provide more information about workplace diversity, but can have the opposite effect of excluding nonbinary employees. HRC offers suggested language to use so employees can self-identify in demographic data collection in ways that are more accurate.

There should be existing guidelines to support transgender employees who are transitioning.

Transitioning is a process and an employee who wants to come out at work should have the freedom to do so on their own terms. In order to ease their transition in workplace-related matters, companies should establish a set of gender transition guidelines for management so that operational protocols are understood by everyone.

The goal is to be “proactive rather than reactive” with regards to supporting the transitioning employee, Bailey explained. “By sitting down and preparing these guidelines, a company thinks through all of these operational change points, the communication points, and the educational points that need to be covered,” he said.

HR should consider all the things that need to happen in the workplace to support that individual. These might include things like changing the employee’s email address and security badge and the education of colleagues and maybe even clients.

Another topic to consider is the workplace’s restroom facilities. Ideally, a workplace nondiscrimination policy will state that transgender or gender nonbinary employees can use the restrooms that align with their gender identity, noted Christy Mallory, J.D., director of state and local policy at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

Companies may also incorporate non-gendered restroom or all-gender restrooms, suggested Litner. But it’s also important that a nondiscrimination policy states that transgender employees should not be required to use a single-user restroom at the workplace when other employees are permitted to use a group restroom.

Dress codes should focus on acceptable workplace attire.

Generally speaking nowadays, companies view dress codes that enforce gendered stereotypes to be a liability. However, workplaces may have appearance standards that prove to be restrictive for transgender employees. Therefore, companies should frame a dress code around “what is acceptable workplace attire” in general, explained Bailey. “Whatever is acceptable workplace attire should be acceptable for everyone,” he said.

For example, are open-toed shoes acceptable for your workplace? How about colorful makeup or jewelry? Framing policies around specific attire, instead of the gender of the person wearing it, de-emphasizes whether the employee is adhering to a gender binary. And that’s important for transgender employees who may experience harassment for the way they dress, Bailey explained.

When it comes to uniforms, rather than stipulating a “men’s uniform” and a “women’s uniform,” Bailey suggested that companies take a “menu-based approach.” (Or, in the case of workplaces with uniforms, opt for gender-neutral styles). For example, all employees can be told they need to pick one top and the options to choose from are “a shirt, a blouse, a polo shirt.”

Healthcare coverage should be inclusive of transgender health concerns.

According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey Report, one in four respondents experienced a problem in the previous year related to being transgender, such as being denied coverage for care related to a gender transition. Last week (June 12), the Trump administration announced it was eliminating part of the Affordable Care Act that prohibited discrimination based on gender identity. (While the SCOTUS ruling affirmed that sex discrimination includes discrimination based on gender identity, the Trump administration issued a memo declaring the opposite.) 

“We need employers to make sure that their policies cover the medical needs of transgender and gender nonconforming people,” said Bailey. These employees may need coverage that specifically address hormone replacement therapy and gender affirmation surgeries.

Employers should work with their insurance broker or third-party administrator to ensure that their plan “is specifically inclusive of transgender people,” Bailey said. If you don’t know whether your health insurance plan is inclusive of these medical needs, the best thing to do is ask.

Encourage employees to share their pronouns.

It’s becoming increasingly common for people to include their their pronouns on their personal email signatures or in the bio on social media accounts. Companies should encourage their employees — not just transgender employees, but all employees — to state their pronouns on signatures for their workplace email, on name badges in retail-facing environment, and in the company directory.

Litner also suggested that leaders can begin meetings by asking people to share their pronouns along with their names during introductions. “It’s something very, very small that [we] could do that would make a really big difference in terms of making sure that we’re affirming people’s identities,” she said.

Check your bias.

“If you’ve never met anybody who’s transgender or nonbinary, that may be new for you,” said Bailey. “You may be uncomfortable, you may have questions, all of these things.” But it’s vitally important that the responsibility of education doesn’t fall on the employees themselves. It’s not part of a transgender employee’s job to teach people about inclusivity.

“There is a tendency for people from dominant groups to expect people from marginalized groups to educate them on how to navigate these issues,” Litner said. That dynamic is “tokenizing and anti-inclusive,” she said, and it’s frustrating and demoralizing for your employees from marginalized groups to deal with.

Ultimately, an inclusive workplace requires employees to have empathy for others, noted Litner. A company can’t force its employees to be empathic but it can give them tools to make them more self-aware. It can encourage workers to be mindful of behaviors like not making eye contact, using a derogatory tone of voice when speaking, and facial expressions. Establishing standards for acceptable behavior means that no one who disrespects or dehumanizes a colleague will be able to say, “Oh, I didn’t realize!” as an excuse — and that they’ll be held responsible accordingly.

Lastly, HR are the people who are empowered in a workplace to address harassment and microaggressions. It’s imperative that they are trained on issues pertaining to transgender employees as well.

Have a willingness to grow.

People are not perfect. No workplace is perfect, either. Even the most proactive and well-intentioned workplaces will still screw up sometimes when it comes to affirming their transgender employees. What ultimately matters is having a willingness to admit these mistakes, accept responsibility for them and grow accordingly.

“We have a workplace culture, generally speaking, where we’re not supposed to say that we don’t know,” said Bailey. “What we need is people to say ‘I don’t know a lot about the trans community — I wish I knew more so I could be a better support system and a better leader of trans and nonbinary folks. So who’s going help me with that?'”

Being a better ally to your transgender employees — and all other employees — means educating oneself in a comprehensive and meaningful way. “Being a more inclusive society and more inclusive workplaces … does take self-inspection and the willingness to try to objectively look at even some of your shortcomings in terms of our sheer blind spots and address them,” Bailey continued.

Make a start.

Today’s ruling is one crucial step towards affirming that the 1.4 million people who identify as transgender (as of 2016) are protected from discrimination in their workplaces. But the work doesn’t end there. What Each of us can take steps to make our workplaces as inclusive and affirming as possible. Adopting policies like sharing pronouns in the company directory, adapting dress codes to focus on attire rather than gender, providing opportunities for learning, and establishing gender transition guidelines for management are ways for a company to live its values. We can improve our own communities while we fight for and enact change on the legislative level.

Jessica Wakeman is a journalist who focuses on women’s social, cultural and political issues. Her writing has appeared in Bitch, Bust, Bustle, Glamour, Marie Claire, Rolling Stone, The Cut, The New York Times and numerous other publications. You can read her work here.

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