Six ways to be more inclusive of transgender people in the workplace

A protest in New York in July about a US government decision to ban transgender people from serving in the US military is an example of efforts to raise awareness of the rights of transgender people in the workplace. Erik McGregor/SIPA/PA Images
A protest in New York in July about a US government decision to ban transgender people from serving in the US military is an example of efforts to raise awareness of the rights of transgender people in the workplace. Erik McGregor/SIPA/PA Images

HR has a key role in preventing discrimination against transgender people. Jennie Kermode, author of a new book on transgender people in the workplace, gives six tips on making the workplace more inclusive.

A recent survey by job board Totaljobs found that 43% of transgender people actively look for trans-friendly employers when they’re jobhunting. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people may also take an organisation’s trans-friendliness as a good sign that they’ll be welcome there. So how can employers make their workplaces better for transgender employees? How can they send out the right signals – and make sure they are doing more than just window-dressing?

Go beyond LGBT

Some employers don’t realise that it’s not enough just to cater for one group covered by the acronym LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people). They may also fail to realise that these groups can have very different needs. Transgender people who are considering working for an organisation need to know that it is aware of the specific issues they face. This means employers make a better impression if they mention transgender people specifically in their recruitment materials and statements about equality.

Have a clear diversity policy

Most organisations now have diversity policies but all too often they’re a box-ticking exercise and are not backed up in practice. To be useful, a diversity policy needs to be visible to all of an organisation’s employees. It should be referenced in workplace communications so that people remember it’s there and know that the employer takes it seriously. There needs to be a clear contact point for anybody concerned that the policy is being violated, and you need to have measures in place to protect whistle-blowers. Employers should make sure it explicitly states that discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated.

Take harassment seriously

If a team has been getting along well for a long time and a new transgender employee complains about harassment, it can be easy for employers to assume they must have misunderstood something. If an employee decides to transition, the employer may feel tempted to blame the associated disruption for any ill-feeling. But research shows that transgender people face harassment all the time, and it can be very damaging. It’s important to investigate all complaints. If they stem from ignorance, training could help, but problems won’t go away by themselves and transgender employees deserve organisations’ protection.

Use language carefully

Making transgender people welcome in the workplace isn’t just about avoiding words or comments that might cause distress. Employers can make a proactive effort to be inclusive. Respecting the pronouns (terms like “he” and “she”) that individuals prefer is really important, even if they’re non-binary (have a gender identity not exclusively masculine or feminine) because their use conveys respect. Employers should make sure that data systems don’t make mistakes with pronouns, titles or old names. Avoid unnecessary use of gendered language, for instance by saying “people” instead of men and women.

Be aware of health issues

If an employee is going through transition and plans to have surgery, time off work will be needed, and this should be treated in the same way as any other employee needing time off for health-related issues (including elective ones like pregnancy). Occasional time off will also be needed for appointments to manage hormone treatment. When new to taking hormones, transgender people can experience mood swings and intensified emotions. This is a short-term issue and is unlikely to cause problems in a friendly workplace, but an understanding HR department can help.

Be ready to listen

For those who are not part of a minority group themselves, it’s impossible to anticipate every problem it faces. What’s more, transgender people vary as much individually as any other group of people. This means that it’s vital to keep listening and seeking feedback – employers should never assume they understand everything or that they know best. Organisations should make sure transgender employees feel confident about raising any problems they may have and about making suggestions if they think there are ways things can be done better.

Employer policies on helping transgender employees should always be seen as a work in progress. Properly supporting transgender people in the workplace will help all staff feel more confident about their organisation’s approach to equality and diversity.

It may help other employees to open up about issues of gender, sexuality, religion or ethnicity that they have not previously felt safe to share. When employees feel more secure about being themselves and are not worried by the need to keep secrets, their performance generally improves and workplace bullying decreases. Everybody in the organisation benefits.

If employers have never had much contact with transgender people in the past, they may find themselves with a lot to learn in a short space of time, but they must resist feeling overwhelmed. In the end, the most important thing is simply that transgender people are treated with the same respect as anyone else.

Jennie Kermode is the chair of Trans Media Watch, a charity promoting positive media representations of the transgender community. Her new book, Transgender Employees in the Workplace, is available now

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