Tips for Respectfully Addressing Transgender Dynamics in the Workplace

What employers and employees need to know

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I recently had the opportunity to attend a fabulous workshop on “Transgender Dynamics in the Workplace” with Gina Duncan, the Director of Transgender Equality for Equality Florida. As I sat and listened to Gina, it hit me that this is an issue that could be fraught with misunderstanding in the workplace.

Currently, Title VII does not provide protection for transgender employees, an issue soon to be addressed by the US Supreme Court. However, there are many state and local laws that do provide such protection.

As an experienced employment lawyer, I had lots of questions, so I can imagine HR professionals, business owners, and employees do too.  

Now I’m not here to say that after one workshop, I have all of the answers. However, I did learn an awful lot from Gina that I think would also be useful for you. And since my goal is to empower organizations and leaders to stay on the right side of the next #hashtag movement, I believe I have a responsibility to share some of what I’ve learned. So, here goes.

Being Transgender is not a choice. If an employee advises you that they are transgender or are transitioning, you may have the urge to ask them when did they choose their gender. This is an inappropriate question as being transgender is not a choice. Transgender is an adjective, an umbrella term, which means that the person’s identity does not align with their sex assigned at birth. Using the phrase “transgender people” is appropriate. However, it may be viewed as disrespectful to use the terms “transgenders” or “transgendered.”

“Transitioning” and being transgender is not defined by surgery. This was a question I had of Gina. I wanted to know if saying that someone has transitioned means they had altered their body through surgery. I learned that was not the case. The process of transitioning is a personal one. In transitioning, some people choose to alter their bodies through hormones or surgery. Some may not. Instead, some may choose to transition through “gender expression” that aligns with their true selves. Gender identity is what is important, not the physical transition.

Terms you should be familiar with.[1]

  • Gender Identity: deeply held, innate feeling about how one feels about themselves and how they relate to the world. A person’s gender identity might not align with their sex assigned at birth.
  • Cisgender: gender identity aligns with sex assigned at birth.
  • Gender Binary: traditional gender constructs – male and female.
  • Gender Non-binary: those who are uncomfortable with the traditional construct of male and female and prefer to live in a more gender fluid state (e.g., gender non-conforming, gender queer).
  • Gender Dysphoria: strong feelings of distress associated with feeling out of alignment with one’s gender identity and/or gender expression.
  • LGBTQ:  an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer.
  • Pronouns: asking someone their pronouns is a respectful way to acknowledge a person’s gender identity and prevent misgendering.

Tips for creating a safe, inclusive workplace for transgender employees

  1. Make sure you have clearly defined anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, and anti-retaliation policies that specifically identify gender identity and gender expression as protected categories. These policies should apply not only to your employees, but any customers and vendors.
  2. Provide training for managers and employees. If you are not qualified to provide this training, hire someone who is or reach out to an organization like Equality Florida.
  3. Recognize and use a transgender employee’s preferred name and gender.
  4. Develop processes and systems to address issues that may arise where the transgender employee’s preferred name and expression do not match legal documents.
  5. Allow employees to use facilities, e.g. restrooms, locker rooms, changing rooms, that align with their gender identity.
  6. Make dress codes gender neutral. If there is a business reason that requires gender-specific dress codes, allow transgender employees to follow the dress code that aligns with their gender identity.
  7. When in doubt, ask clarifying questions (e.g., How would you like to be addressed? What are your pronouns? What name would you like me to call you?).
  8. Be proactive. If an employee advises you that they are transitioning, develop a mutually agreed upon plan with the employee. You can find “Gender Transition Guidelines” on the Human Rights Campaign website.

These are just some of the things I learned from Gina. But hopefully it gives you a good starting place. But you should not stop here. As with all other dynamics in the workplace, there must be an authentic, sustained commitment to embed this in your organization’s culture. If you have questions, contact Equality Florida, the Human Rights Commission or a local agency. Knowledge, especially applied knowledge is power.

No matter our race, gender, color, national origin, able-bodiedness, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any of the uniquely wonderful characteristic that make us who we are, we are all human beings who deserve to be respected and loved for exactly who we are.

[1] Transgender Dynamics in the Workplace. Equality Florida.

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