**Updated** A Get Over It Guide to Transgender in the Workplace

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**Updated 11/7/13 Senate passes Gay rights bill banning discrimination.

**Updated 4/27/12 EEOC rules transgender workers a protected class.  More information below.  

Male to Female Transgender in the Workplace

 

Self expression and being authentic in life and at work are trends that are only likely to continue.   Last month the state of Massachusetts signed into law forbidding discrimination based on gender identity to anyone seeking housing, employment, or post-secondary education.  Also earlier this year (April 2011) the state of Hawaii signed a transgender workplace protection act into law.  Meanwhile California presented a cross dressing protection bill also in April of this year.

Bottom line. . . the times they are a changin’.

In HR and the world of work, I’ve had my share of uncomfortable and unpredictable workplace conversations.  From topics of sleep apnea causing sleeping on the job and performance related problems to employees requesting bereavement leave to mourn a furry friend, the random poop smearer in the men’s bathroom, to the day I had one of the most uncomfortable and controversial conversations I will never forget.

Sam walked into my office hunched down not looking me in the eye.  He was clearly nervous and uncomfortable but like most employees who arrive at HR’s door, he had a question to ask and a story to tell.  Sam [whose name has been changed] began by asking about our leave of absence and time off policies then moved on to several unrelated questions regarding our company health benefits.  He was clearly beating around the bush so I asked the question, “Is there anything else you want to talk about?”

Sam’s answer was yes.

Transgender Workplace

He told me how he made the decision a couple weeks ago to begin the long process to go from man to woman.  The decision and transformation involved not only surgery but months of therapy and hormone treatments as he would prepare for the change to transition from male to female – Sam to Sandy.

In the early 2000′s, the topic of transgender in the workplace was a relatively new one, but it didn’t make it any less important as Sam, myself, my store manager, and my VP of HR began to formulate a plan.  Keeping the lines of communication open with Sam, and our small group, we worked to make him feel comfortable every step along the way.  We discussed his comfort level with when and how he wished to inform his co-workers and if he felt comfortable sharing.

Sam was a relatively tenured employee and was eligible for FMLA.  He was liked, respected, and completely terrified, but I, along with my team worked to support him regardless of our own personal beliefs and beliefs of others to help him along his personal journey transitioning from male to female.

In 2008, I met a woman who touched my heart as she shared her story of how her own HR Manager led a campaign of hate sending out a company wide email alerting company employees to the woman’s new name and bathroom arrangement.  Outside of a single conversation nothing had been discussed.  She was mortified as I was mortified for her while ashamed of the very profession where I’ve worked.

Supporting Transgender in the Workplace

Conversations around transgender are delicate, uncomfortable and unfamiliar for your employee who is undergoing the transformation, the staff, and in our case, customers in a retail setting where Sandy worked.  When faced with an employee who is undergoing a change like this, it’s important to be supportive, confidential while keeping the lines of communication open for everyone involved.  As Sandy went from Sam to Sandy, you are right to think we had our share of questions each one addressed individually sometimes with Sandy alongside and other times addressing simple questions like, “What bathroom will she use?” or “What happens if I accidentally call Sandy, Sam?”

In the end, Sandy was embraced just as she was before but not without a few bumps and raised eyebrows along the way.  The key to our success was by creating not only a culture where employees are comfortable to ask questions but also accepting of one’s differences starting from the way in which our store manager set the tone to interactions from influential employees as well as customers.

In the end I was extremely proud of Sandy for her decision because it takes guts to stand up and be yourself.  It takes courage to be the person you were meant to be.

**3/5/12 Update.  Here’s a great Transgender Toolkit that was recommended to me by my Twitter friend, @1000cigarettes.

**4/27/12 Update:  The EEOC recently ruled transgender workers as a protected class under Title VII.  Wonder how this translates into transgenders and gays in the workplace especially in light of the recent case of an employee who was terminated after they liked a Gay Facebook Fan Page.

**11/7/13 Update: The Senate just passed a bill that bans gay discrimination in the workplace.

Photo Credit Salon.com.  

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Comments

  1. This is just one of the (many) things you don’t consider when entering the HR world, or even just business. I appreciate you sharing this experience. Often we can get hung up on our personal beliefs (regardless what they are about) and forget about the person standing in front of us. Kudos to you and your team for supporting the PERSON and paving the way both within that company and the industry.

    Reply
    • Thanks Tracy. I have received a number of emails, DM, and messages of support after I published this post. I also received several questions from leaders and HR folks who are or have in the past dealt with a situation like I described. Seems to me this topic warrants further discussion.

      JMM

      Reply
  2. Jessica,

    Thank you for shining light onto this little understood and rarely seriously discussed issue. I have dealt with transgendered issues in my workplace and one of my husband’s best friends is transgendered. These issues are very complex and the people with these issues need a lot more than our derision simply because the rest of us don’t understand.

    Being and L&D RN, I can confidently say that the very first thing that is said about most people upon their birth is the announcement of their gender. To have confusion around this is fundamental to a person’s identity.

    Also, people would be well to realize that gender issues are not the same as sexual orientation issues.

    Reply
    • Chloe,

      Yes, gender is such an important part in our society of who we are so it makes since that this would cause a great deal of upheaval for the person who is realizes they are not comfortable in their own skin. I’m surprised by the number of comments privately I have received from others as well as other questions that have came to light. I will be discussing more about this topic again very soon on the blog. I’m also excited to report that I will be writing about this topic on Fortune.com’s website.

      Thank you again for your comment.

      JMM

      Reply
  3. Thanks for writing on this delicate topic — I’m really looking forward to see your article on Fortune.com :)

    Oh, and thanks for the short visit on my own blog as well!

    Reply
  4. Jessica,

    I was on the other side of this issue, I was a subordinate under someone who transitioned. We shared the same office for a year and a half and I was then laid off with out reason (AZ is a right-to-work state). I was given a nice severance package and shown the door. I am quite positive my supervisor was taken hormone treatments during this entire time and I had to suffer through that as well, as he/she came in every day in a different and often extreme mood. You can imagine it was not the best work environment. What about those like me? where does the right of the transitioning person end and mine begin? Should I not have received notice this was happening? should not upper management removed my super from his duties until he was done with his transition? I am 100% sure that his transitioning played a part in my dismissal, do I have any recourse for wrongful termination? This is indeed a thorny issue that should be managed from all sides, not just the side of the transitioning person.

    Reply
    • Gabe,

      I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you. Mistreating employees is never right and it is wrong regardless of the circumstances. There are options in the situation that you describe including the employee taking a medical leave or allowing for time off while they are on hormones. I would likely treat this situation just as I would someone who is undergoing fertility treatments as persons are often experience similar symptoms.

      I’m not an attorney so I can’t advise on what your recourse is. You can certainly talk to an attorney about your situation. It also helps if you have concrete documentation like emails and notes that you can reference especially if you had tried to talk with your boss as well as other members of management about the situation.

      The lesson here I’m getting from you is that the team members as well as the employee are going through a change. It is not easy and is not always related to judgements and beliefs. Management needs to communicate and be respectful of everyone involved of the transition. Because the situation is complex and uncomfortable, bosses tend to avoid the topic and hope that it will go away. I’m not saying that happened in your situation but everyone should be communicated about the change and feel comfortable to come forward.

      Thank you for the comment.

      JMM

      Reply

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