Consideration for Transgender Employees

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, I suspect you were met Monday morning with a huge number of posts and conversations about Bruce Jenner’s two hour interview with Diane Sawyer discussing his experiences as a transgender person.  I admire Mr. Jenner (he asked that Ms. Sawyer continue to use male pronouns for now, so I will do so as well) for honestly speaking about such a deeply personal subject on national television and for helping to increase awareness of the issues transgender and gender non-conforming people face daily.

The public’s awareness, understanding, and conversation about life for trans people has been on the rise as celebrities such as Mr. Jenner as well as Emmy-nominated actress Laverne Cox have gained national recognition, but also as more Americans have come to know trans people either in their work or personal lives.  A recent study found that 22% of likely voters either know or work with someone who is transgender and 66% of those who do expressed favorable feelings toward them.  See

I have been really pleased to see that many of the conversations growing out of these issues have been largely positive  and supportive where, in the past, the topics were often met with discomfort, dismissal, and sadly, at times, disrespect.  Given this encouraging trend, we thought it would be useful to talk about issues that face trans people in the workplace and ways in which everyone – from transgender employees themselves, to employers, and coworkers – can best address these issues.  This first post in a three part series will address considerations for transgender employees as they navigate the workplace.

There is no right way to discuss your gender identity with your coworkers or to begin the process of transitioning in the workplace.  Much will depend upon your individual personality and preferences, the environment in which you work, the nature of your relationship with coworkers, and other individual factors.  However, before you initiate that conversation or begin the process of transitioning, there are a few things that every trans employee will want to think about.

Know Your Rights

First, keep in mind that discrimination against employees based on their gender identity is unlawful in some, but not all, states.  Thankfully, Illinois is one of those states which include gender identity as one protected category under its anti-discrimination statute, the Illinois Human Rights Act.  For employees working in one of those states which do not prohibit discrimination against transgender employees, you may still be protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal statute which prohibits workplace discrimination based on gender.   Although that statute has historically been used in the context of employers who treat male employees more favorably than female employees (or vice versa), several federal courts as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have interpreted discrimination against employees because of their transgender status to be discrimination because of gender, thus triggering Title VII’s protections.

This means that neither your employer nor your coworkers can treat you differently simply because of your transgender status or because you have begun the process of transitioning in the workplace.

Know Your Employer’s Policies

Next, by now many employers’ policies are far more inclusive than you might expect – not only including gender identity in their anti-discrimination and retaliation policies, but also providing transgender-inclusive health benefits as well as explicitly providing policies to ease the process for transitioning employees.  Indeed, the Human Rights Campaign has an index of employers which indicates that two thirds of the country’s Fortune 500 companies include gender-identity as a protected category in discrimination policies and one third offer transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits.  Check it out here:|utmccn=%28organic%29|utmcmd=organic|utmctr=%28not%20provided%29&__utmv=-&__utmk=267744782.  It’s worth noting that in 2002, just about a decade ago, only 3% of Fortune 500 companies prohibited discrimination against transgender employees.  Clearly, things are moving in the right direction.

I will be talking more about how employers can craft and revise policies to protect and include transgender employees in the next installment of this post, but as an employee, I would recommend that you look to see what policies may already be in place that can assist you if you feel you’ve been discriminated against, if you are planning to undergo medical procedures related to your transition, or if you are beginning the process of transitioning.

Form a Transition Plan

If you are planning to transition in the workplace, there are important questions that both you and your employer will need to consider.  For instance:

  • How will your coworkers, managers, customers, and other colleagues be informed?And by whom?  Would you prefer to do it yourself?  Does it make sense to send out a letter?  And should that announcement be made before the transition starts as a heads up or simultaneously with your change in presentation?
  • Does your staff require any education or information on gender identities?Does it make sense to ask for or provide training on equitable and inclusive treatment?  Or to at least educate them on terminology or other pieces of information which might help people avoid being unwittingly insensitive?
  • What pronouns would you prefer that your coworkers, supervisors, customers and others use when addressing you?What’s the best way to ensure that everyone is aware of that?
  • Similarly, will your name change?If so, what personnel forms or procedures will you need to complete to formalize that both in payroll as well as in your company email address, internet profile, letterhead, employee directories, desk and/or door signage, etc.?
  • And, though I think that it should not even require conversation, will you be allowed to use the restroom associated with the gender with which you identify?If so, will there be any restrictions on doing so?  And again, how will your coworkers be informed and how will any potential complaints or coworker concerns about that be handled?

Knowing the answers to these questions upfront will hopefully simplify any issues that might arise as you begin your transition.

The simplest way to address all of these considerations, in addition to any other questions or concerns that your employer might have, is to start by informing your Human Resources or Employee Relations professional of your transition and asking to set up some time to sit down and formulate a transition plan.  Ideally, your employer will have considered these questions before and set forth a policy to ease the transition process for you.  HRC reports that hundreds of large employers, in fact, have already adopted gender transition guidelines for employees.  But absent those policies, you will have to work with HR to ensure that all your bases are covered.

There are some excellent resources online which may help both you and HR in formulating such a plan.  I would recommend that you look to the following for guidance as well as some useful first person accounts of workplace transitions:

Beware of Retaliation

Finally, while I hate to end this post on a down note, I would be remiss not to note that in some workplaces, there may be a backlash against a transitioning employee or an employee who comes out as transgender or gender non-conforming.  As I mentioned above, discrimination of this sort is unlawful in many states and may also be covered under federal law, but sadly that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen.

Thus, if you begin the process of transitioning and feel that your employer is treating you adversely as a result or if your coworkers have harassed or made fun of you in any way as a result of your gender identity, you may want to consider taking some action to protect yourself – either by reporting the discrimination or retaliation to your manager or HR or by speaking with a lawyer who can advocate on your behalf.

We certainly hope that as transgender people continue to become more common in our workplaces, schools, and homes, policies and people will continue to become more accepting and inclusive.  Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post where we will discuss how employers can take proactive steps to foster that positive change.