Managing Gender Identity Issues in the Workplace

February 17, 2017
Natalie Schraner Hayes By Natalie Schraner Hayes

In 2014, Laverne Cox made history when she became the first transgendered actor to be nominated for an Emmy. Cox plays Sophia Burset on the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.”

In 2015, Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner) made headlines after making her public debut on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

And in 2016, North Carolina made headlines for its controversial law governing usage of public restrooms, a move that to critics unfairly targeted transgendered people.

Gender identity and transgender issues have become the focus of considerable attention in recent years, as both famous and ordinary people have shared their experiences and stories. Greater public awareness has followed. Even so, many employers find themselves unsure of how to navigate the shifting landscape.

Consider, for example, the manager who receives a complaint that a call center employee addressed a client as “sir” and asked about the client’s “wife.” Both were offenses to the male-to-female transitioning individual.

Now consider the employee’s argument — the client had a male-sounding voice and a male-sounding name. The employee unfortunately made a reasonable assumption that turned out to be wrong.

How should the employer respond?

Perhaps you’re thinking none of this pertains to your organization. And maybe it doesn’t … yet. Still, it makes sense to expand your knowledge of issues that impact your employee population and the laws under which your company must operate. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) already prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.  State and local governments are increasingly adding protections as well. Carefully handling these issues can help reduce workplace conflict as well as potential fines, legal settlements or lost customers and revenue.

Gender Identity Terms and Definitions 

Start by knowing the terminology of gender identity. Following are some core terms and definitions. Note, these are not absolute, but are part of an evolving discussion.

Gender. One’s internal sense of being male, female, neither or both. Gender can be the same or different from the sex assigned at birth.

Cisgender. When your gender identity matches your biological sex at birth (e.g., a person assigned male at birth who still identifies as male).

Transgender. A person who lives as a gender other than the one assigned at birth. For example, a person assigned female at birth who lives as a man.

Gender fluid. A person with shifting gender identity who does not identify as fixed.

Transitioning. The process of changing one’s assigned birth gender to one’s preferred gender. Transitioning may include medical aspects (taking hormones), legal aspects (changing name) and/or social aspects (dressing in clothing traditionally associated with one’s gender identity but not associated with one’s gender assignment at birth).

Supporting Your Transgender Employees

Gender identity and transgender issues can be confusing, and your employees may have questions or even feel uncomfortable with the topic. Thus, transgender employees often feel vulnerable. How can you support these employees? We suggest the following:

Develop inclusive workplace policies. Most companies have policies documenting their allegiance to inclusivity.  Adhere to your policies by taking specific steps to eliminate discrimination while celebrating a diverse workplace.

Start by addinggender identity to your overall non-discrimination policy — something that may be required by law, depending on your state, but in any case, is just good business.

Next, your managers and HR department will need help responding appropriately to the news of a transitioning employee. Provide guidance on handling specific issues. Is a company announcement necessary?  If so, who should send it and what information should be communicated? For example, how should personnel and other administrative records be adjusted? What about dress code and restroom use?

Insist on a culture of civility and respect. Basic respect for each other will go a long way toward stopping conflict before it starts.

Commit to seeing employees as whole persons. While gender identity is core to a person’s sense of self, gender doesn’t define our entire selves. When engaging an employee, don’t focus solely on their gender identity.

Use the employee’s preferred pronoun. Honor how the employee wants to be referred, regardless of the employee’s gender assignment at birth.

Offer Employee Assistance Program (EAP) support. Gender identity and transgender issues are challenging to many. An EAP staffed with supportive, knowledgeable counselors can help employees sort out those challenges or simply offer qualified, listening ears. Your EAP can also offer corporate support in the form of training, teambuilding, coaching and other organizational development type services.

Finally, have an open-door policy with respect to your organization’s overall posture regarding gender identity. Take all complaints seriously, and regularly solicit employee input about what’s working and what’s not.

Gender identity and transgender issues are uncharted territory for many employers. However, a focus on respect in the workplace as well as employee health and well-being will aid in preventing any missteps. For a deeper conversation about how to approach gender identity at your organization, just get in touch.

Natalie Schraner Hayes

By Natalie Schraner Hayes, BHS Senior Performance Consultant

Natalie is a Licensed Professional Counselor bringing over 10 years of experience working in mental health settings to her role as Senior Performance Consultant. Her passions at BHS include crisis management, leading clinical supervision and promoting employee well-being. She strikes her own work/life balance with meditation and weight lifting.