Safety should be fundamental at work
As we celebrate International Transgender Day of Visibility—a day of joy and awareness—we’re also in the midst of an ongoing wave of anti-trans bills, more than 150 in 25 states.
This is a grim reminder that trans people are still often not safe in our current cultural climate, including at work.
For trans employees, workplaces are often unwelcoming—which is likely why more than half of trans employees are not out at work, and two-thirds hide their identity in professional settings related to work. In other words, don’t assume there aren’t trans employees in your workplace.
The negative statistics and stories about how poorly trans people are treated, both at work and in the wider world, are important to acknowledge. Let’s focus on the generative aspects of building a culture where trans employees are able to:
Focus on their work in safety
Build relationships with coworkers while living authentically
Bring all the wonderful creativity and joy to the workplace that’s possible when people are able to truly be themselves
The language of identity
Like any other group of people, trans people’s experiences and identities are not homogeneous or static.
It’s still important to pin down language, in this context, because we use language to identify and locate ourselves within human categories. Language is a way of making sense and meaning out of our experiences and that is deeply human and healthy.
Having said that, here are some useful definitions to know:
Gender identity: Everyone has this. It’s our internal sense of ourselves as masculine or feminine, a bit of both, neither, or something else entirely. This does not necessarily correspond with the sex we are assigned at birth.
Gender expression: This is how we present our gender in the world.
Cisgender: People whose gender identity aligns with their assigned sex at birth.
Sexual orientation: Separate from gender identity, this describes who we are attracted to physically, romantically, and/or emotionally.
With this knowledge in mind, let’s think about and pinpoint some ways workplace leaders can do the work of creating psychological safety for their trans employees.
Living authentically shouldn’t feel unsafe
Trans employees may:
Already be out when they start a new job
Out in their personal life, but don’t feel safe or comfortable coming out at work
Decide to transition after starting a new job, a process that is specific to each individual
In a recent McKinsey survey, Being transgender at work, one respondent said this: “I decided a while ago that I’m just going to get through work until I can retire. I can survive being closeted for now. My goal is not to be fully out—it’s just to not feel unsafe.”
It’s a heartbreaking sentiment to feel the need to hide an important aspect of one’s identity for potentially 40 or 50 years, to feel a measure of safety. It’s critical for leaders and supervisors to understand the human cost when trans employees aren’t able to be safely out at work.
How to support an employee who is transitioning or coming out
If an employee tells a supervisor or leader they are transitioning or are ready to come out at work, there are several ways to approach the conversation:
If an employee wants to come out, let them lead the process. They may want to come out formally to the entire company, or informally to their team or department
Be open, listen to the employee, and ask what they need to be supported
Affirm the employee, letting them know they’ll be safe and supported in the workplace
In partnership with the employee and HR, work out a plan for alerting other employees about name and/or pronoun changes
Inform the employee about any resources or support groups within the company
Get everyone on board at the same time, so the employee doesn’t have to explain themselves over and over to different departments. Authority figures should lead the way here, modeling trans-inclusive behaviors and correcting any non-inclusive behavior, which will send a signal that harassment isn’t tolerated.
This is also a good time to remind employees about the organization’s DEI policy.
For a lot of companies, further education and awareness will be necessary to help combat stigma and ignorance. This isn’t something that needs to be done only in the case of an employee coming out as trans, but is a good proactive measure to take at any time.
4 ways to create psychological safety for trans employees
DEI efforts often exclude trans and nonbinary identities. HR leaders are in a position to change that, starting with these four steps.
Offer trans competency training
There’s no wrong time for an organization to devote time to trans competency training for leaders, supervisors, and employees to help with:
Understanding the barriers trans employees face in the workplace
How to respect pronoun usage
Confronting internal and external stigma
How to be a trans ally—some employees may want to challenge discrimination but don’t have the knowledge or language
How workplaces are more dynamic and vibrant when people can live authentically
The burden should not be placed on trans employees to educate their coworkers. Everyone’s comfort level varies here. Having to speak for all trans people and address constant questions about such a personal topic can be really exhausting, especially in the midst of the workday, which is often already stressful.
This situation can also lead to inappropriate questions about personal topics. Hire professionals to do the educational work and be careful about how trainings are conducted.
For example, it’s helpful to allow time for a Q&A or discussion after the training, for cis employees. But make attendance for this portion optional so that trans, queer, and/or nonbinary employees don’t have to listen to potentially ignorant or rude comments.
Make policy and then put it into practice
Unfortunately, even with supportive HR leaders and supervisors, there may still be employees who don’t get on board with treating their trans coworkers respectfully.
It will likely take time, but weaving non-discrimination into the policy level is one of a constellation of ways to build a work environment where trans employees can focus on their work without feeling unsafe, either physically or psychologically.
Along with a robust non-discrimination policy, companies can also implement:
Zero tolerance for transphobia or bullying in writing and in practice
A statement about the company’s equity and diversity commitment to employees
Clearly articulated process for complaints—a true investigative process, including follow ups
Providing material support:
Time off work for gender affirming care
Trans-specific benefits, such as ensuring health insurance covers gender affirmation surgery and hormone therapy (not all trans people choose to medically transition)
Here’s a model policy for guidance.
Create the space for authentic expression
Gender and gender expression are often policed in ways that most people don’t notice, unless they’re someone who doesn’t follow gender norms.
Workplaces have gendered dress codes, use gendered language in policy documents, have gendered bathrooms and/or locker rooms, and gendered work roles, to name a few examples.
Organizations can create more openness in how employees express themselves by implementing:
Dress codes that are gender neutral and flexible
Options for pronouns any time names have to be given or written down
Gender neutral bathrooms and changing rooms, with individual stalls, which give everyone privacy
Such changes allow all employees more space to express themselves. Workplace cultures that provide this space boost creativity, innovation, and dynamism because everyone is comfortable with bringing their whole selves to work.
Put support systems in place
Connecting with others at work who have similar lived experiences is a significant part of feeling supported and understood. Workplace support networks are about relationship building, knowing people who have your back, and connecting with people who understand what you’re going through.
Organizations can provide support systems for trans employees through:
Employee resource groups
Check-ins with managers, supervisors, or HR leaders
Offering EAPs that provide therapy and mental health support
Providing information about community support networks
Mentoring and peer support programs
Employers have a duty of care to keep employees safe
Putting in the necessary work of making trans employees feel safe, respected, and supported creates conditions where humans are able to be more expansive, more creative, and more free to be themselves at work.
My hope for HR and People leaders is that you’re able to confront your own stigma and unconscious bias, and identify where it’s coming from.
Every employee deserves to feel safe at work, and able to walk through the world authentically, without hiding in fear of violence or harassment. A workplace where trans employees feel safe and free to be themselves is a workplace that is more vibrant, innovative, productive, and joyful.
Further reading and resources:
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