**Updated** A Get Over It Guide to Transgender in the Workplace
Jessica Miller-Merrell | HR, Work| By
**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’.
I’ve experienced my fair share of unsettling and unusual office talks both in HR and in the workplace. The day I had one of the most uncomfortable and contentious conversations I will never forget ranged from subjects like sleep apnea causing employees to fall asleep at work and performance-related issues to employees requesting bereavement leave to mourn a furry friend, the random poop smearer in the men’s bathroom, to employees requesting bereavement leave.
Sam entered my office while slumped over and not paying me any attention. He was obviously uneasy and hesitant, but like most workers who show up at HR’s door, he had a query to make and a tale to share. Sam [name changed] started by inquiring about our leave of absence and vacation policy before moving on to a number of irrelevant inquiries involving our workplace health benefits. I questioned him, “Is there anything more you want to talk about? ” because it was obvious that he was avoiding the subject.
Sam’s answer was yes.
He explained to me how he decided to start the protracted process of transitioning from a guy to a lady a few weeks ago. In addition to surgery, the choice and transformation required months of therapy and hormone treatments as Sam prepared to transition from Sam to Sandy.
Although the issue of transgender employees in the workplace was still somewhat uncharted territory in the early 2000s, Sam, myself, my store manager, and my VP of HR started to develop a strategy. We strived to make Sam feel at ease at every turn by keeping the lines of communication open with him and our small group. We talked about whether he felt safe sharing and when and how he wanted to inform his coworkers.
Sam was a relatively tenured employee and was eligible for FMLA. He was liked, respected, and utterly afraid, but my team and I tried to support him despite our own and others’ beliefs in order to assist him in his individual transition from male to female.
In 2008, I met a woman whose account of how her own HR manager orchestrated a hate campaign by sending out an email to all firm employees warning them about the woman’s new identity and bathroom arrangement grabbed my heart. Nothing had been mentioned prior to that one conversation. She was embarrassed, and I felt embarrassed for her and my own career as well.
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 dealing with an employee going through a transformation like this, it’s crucial to be understanding, private, and to keep lines of communication open for all parties. You are correct that we all had our fair share of questions as Sandy transitioned from Sam to Sandy. Sometimes we answered them together, other times we dealt with straightforward inquiries like, “What restroom will she use?” or “What happens if I accidently call Sandy, Sam?”
After a few hiccups and raised eyebrows, Sandy was finally welcomed just as she had been before. The secret to our success was building a culture where employees felt free to ask questions and to embrace others’ differences, starting with the way our store manager set the tone and moving on through encounters with other employees and customers.
Since it takes courage to stand up for yourself, in the end, I was incredibly proud of Sandy for her choice. Being the person you were meant to be requires guts.
**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.
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.
Jessica Miller-Merrell says
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.
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.
Jessica Miller-Merrell says
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.
Sandra M. Lopes says
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!
Jessica Miller-Merrell says
Thank you for the comment and thanks for visiting. I did check out your blog. 🙂
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.
Jessica Miller-Merrell says
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.
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