Transgender Inclusion: Is Your Diversity Program Truly Comprehensive?

Feb 4, 2015
This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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You’ve likely read the People Magazine headline that Bruce Jenner is, “Transitioning Into a Woman.” You may have also seen the digital network shows, Orange is the New Black and Transparent, which have both won critical acclaim for taking the transgender experience to the cable viewing audience.

As buzz about these shows gets louder, a growing audience is exploring previously unknown issues related to gender identification, thus gaining a newfound understanding and tolerance. It’s time for society as a whole, especially the workplace, to do the same.

More and more businesses are recognizing the harassment and discrimination facing transgender individuals, even in the most liberal cities and industries. Transgender rights are slowly coming to the forefront, being confronted with the same level of seriousness as minorities, older workers, and the disabled. This makes good sense, as well as big dollars and cents, according to some in HR who have taken the lead on this issue.

Many of the largest firms in the nation are creating corporate non-discrimination policies specific to gay and transgender workers. In fact, according to a recent report from Human Rights Campaign, 89 percent of rated Fortune 500 firms provide employment protection on the basis of gender identity, and 53 percent afford transgender-inclusive healthcare coverage options. To further their transgender-friendly culture, many are participating in LGBT career fairs to enhance the diversity of their firms.

Organizations are finding that these proactive efforts and policies can shore up employment brands, improve engagement, teamwork, and productivity, and help avoid potential lawsuits. Plus, they are discovering that they gain a competitive advantage. According to Suellen Roth, VP of global policy and diversity at Avaya, transgender inclusion “helps the company attract and retain top talent and reach more markets.” Most of all, it’s the right thing to do.

Taking the first step toward transgender inclusion means recognizing some of the most sensitive issues facing transgender people in the workplace. Here are just a few:

Data submission: Job applications, background screening, and social security checks require data such as legal name and gender identification. These are painful, challenging, and some times embarrassing issues for transgender individuals and can be obstacles to entering and staying in the workforce.

To avoid negative repercussions later, many applicants discover they have no choice but to indicate their legal name and gender — not their true gender — and then advise HR of their transgender status. This can be a terrifying ordeal.

How can a company support trans applicants and new hires? It all start with having an open environment of trust and respect that allows for honest conversations about how to move through the hiring processes without judgment or worry.

Reference checks: It is very possible that former employers know a transgender applicant by another name and/or gender. This again brings up the need for a dialogue that should be welcomed and treated with objectivity and fairness.

Employment surveys: Many firms measure their employees’ engagement and internal opportunity by evaluating personal information such as sexual orientation. Answering survey questions of a personal nature should be 100 percent optional and anonymous.

Bathroom facilities: Employers must provide all employees reasonable access to restrooms. While every business facility has unique circumstances and limitations, it is recommended that a single-occupancy restroom be available to any employee who requires one. Many firms, including Alcatel-Lucent, recommend that transgendered employees use the restroom for the gender they are presenting (unless a state law prevents an employee from doing so). Directing your trans employees to a disabled facility is hurtful and insulting; that’s why many organizations are renaming their handicap restroom as a “unisex/accessible” restroom while retaining appropriate icons. Similar issues revolve around locker rooms and dressing areas.

Misgendering: Whether intentional or not, transgender people are often called by the wrong pronoun: he instead of she, or vice-versa. This may seem like an innocent (or not so innocent) gaffe, but it is extremely distressing and can be considered hostile when done with malice. Understanding the root of the pain and clearly outlining the possible consequences is key to maintaining a transgender-friendly environment. 

Hostile work environment: While there are no federal laws to consistently protect LGBT individuals from employment discrimination and only limited state legislation, numerous lawsuits have been filed by transgender individuals alleging hostile work environments by coworkers and supervisors. It is a company’s responsibility to communicate to staff that respect and fair treatment are first priority and inappropriate comments, confrontations, and jokes are unacceptable.

Transitioning while employed: According to Dr. Jillian Todd Weiss, author of Transgender Workplace Diversity,  “In the absence of a [gender transition plan] … managers don’t know what to do, and that can lead to grievances and lawsuits.”  These plans generally cover numerous points, including how management will assist in the transition of the employee and what the expectations are of the rest of the staff. Chevron and Ernst & Young are two progressive companies who have published their guidelines and made them available online.

In addition to the above, there are numerous benefits issues for transgender employees. Not only can insurance claims being delayed or denied by changing names and genders, many talented employees are faced with expensive mental health costs and gender reassignment surgeries. That’s why progressive firms such as Coca Cola, Yahoo!, American Express, and AT&T have expanded their insurance coverage to meet the needs of transgender employees.

As our society evolves, people are choosing to live more openly. And the workforce must keep pace with progress. Please use the comment field below to share policies, practices, or procedures related to hiring and employing transgender individuals. We all want to build a truly diverse workforce and would truly appreciate your insight.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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