Last week, I moderated Supporting Gender Diverse Workers: Transitioning in the Workplace, a panel discussion on gender diversity. On the panel, three gender-diverse individuals answered questions and shared experiences about transitioning in the workplace.
As I prepared for, and participated in, the discussion, I realized how even I – an LGBTQ2+ ally, ‘woke’ and progressive HR professional – have not prepared my workplace to support an employee in the process of transitioning. They don’t teach this in business school. I received only cursory training on legislative changes around gender expression and identity. Since I benefit from cis-privilege, I have not personally been confronted with just how harmful this gap can be to gender diverse employees. Having now learned more, I felt it important not only to correct this in my workplace, but share with my peers and colleagues some basic, yet important, steps to becoming a more gender-inclusive employer.
Here are the Top 5 Things I learned at FACEBC's Supporting Gender Diverse Workers: Transitioning in the Workplace event:
1. Bathrooms Matter: I learned that many trans or non-binary folks will ‘hold it’ for most of the day, or avoid eating or drinking throughout the day, to avoid the potential discomfort or confrontation of going to the bathroom, Not only is the incredibly unfair and wrong, but it is a health and safety issue for the employer. Holding urine for too long can lead to urinary tract infections and eventually incontinence, kidney infection or a bladder bursting. Holding bowel movements can lead to constipation and impaction, which may require medication or even surgery to remove. As an employer, you have a legal obligation to provide a safe place to work for employees and you will be hit with workers compensation claims if failure to do so leads to occupational illness or injury. Moreover, with gender expression and identity now protected under the BC Human Rights code, the failure to make your workplace accessible to gender-diverse individuals could land you in hot water under the BC Human Rights Code.
We believe that the best practice is to update your facility to single-use, all gender washrooms. If your business is not ready to do construction or renovation, here is what you can do with your existing washrooms: relabel your bathroom signs to say “Trans People Welcome.” If you have single use washrooms, you can add a sign that says “All Gender Washroom.” This ensures your non-binary or transitioning staff know that they are safe and welcome in all parts of your facility.
2. Be Proactive; You Can’t Afford to be Reactive: The unemployment rate in BC is one of the lowest in Canada, so employers have think strategically about how to attract and retain their talent. This means having competitive pay and benefits, interesting work, career development opportunity and a safe and inclusive work environment. If a trans person perceives that their employer will not be safe to transition in the workplace, they will leave. Period.
Many are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which points to physiological needs and safety as foundational in driving human motivation. If employers cannot meet these basic needs, their ‘humans’ will be ‘motivated’ to work somewhere that will. You may say to yourself “well I am supportive of trans people!” but have you told anyone else that? You don’t have to prepare a giant process or policy to make your values known. Simply adding the following statement to an existing policy (e.g. an employee handbook, respectful workplace policy, or health and safety policy) is a quick way to highlight your inclusivity:
“ ‘Company Name’ values the physical and psychological safety of all our employees and aims to create a safe, respectful, inclusive and supportive environment for everyone that works here. For employees who are transgender or non-binary, ‘Company Name’ is happy to provide reasonable accommodations to ensure that you equally benefit from these values. If you are preparing for a transition, please contact your HR Advisor so we can discuss how best to support you.”
When you support gender diverse and transgender people, it also sends a signal out to the rest of your employees that you care, that you’re progressive, and that’s where the new emerging talent is going to want to work. It strengthens your brand.
3. Transition is Different for Everyone: As an employer, we want to be prepared for what we might notice in the employee so that we can prepare to support them. The transitioning process is different for everyone, and there is not ‘one way’ for it to happen. The emotional and physical changes will vary from person-to-person. Some things you may notice are: changes to appearance, voice, or behavior. For example: a trans person may begin to express themselves differently – happier, more communicative, more expressive – and will appreciate words of encouragement and support. The best way to support our transitioning colleagues is to check-in with them (without being obnoxious, pandering, or overly personal.) Ask them how they are doing, offer to go for coffee with them, or ask if there is anything you can do to help them today. As cisgender individuals, we cannot imagine the complex emotions that occur during this time in a trans person’s life, all we can do is be an ally and let them know we are here, we are not judging, we care about them, and we hear them.
4. Let the Employee Own Their Story: I asked our panel of speakers what is the proper ‘protocol’ for communicating with other staff about an employee’s transition. The simple reply was to “let the employee decide.” Some people may prefer that a memo goes out so that they don’t have to repeat the story over and over again. Others would rather not draw attention to their transition and prefer to speak about it only when asked. Make sure you have permission to out the employee before doing so. You can ask the employee questions such as “if I hear someone referring to you with the incorrect pronoun, are you okay with me correcting them?” or “if someone asks me about your change in appearance, may I tell them about your transition?” Ensure that you are respectful of the employees wishes. Their comfort is more important than your own when it comes to this topic, since it is about them and it is deeply personal. Every trans person has varying levels of comfort regarding their visibility and their privacy, and every preference is equally valid.
5. Update Your Systems: Most HR departments will use an HR Information System to capture employee data. Here are a few pointers on making sure your systems are gender inclusive:
Having a field such as “Preferred Name” is a good practice to allow employees to input a name that they prefer is used at work.
Some employers are required to report on gender statistics and will therefore ask employees to select their gender when they are hired. If you must collect information on gender (which you should question), try to leave the field as an open-ended box where the employee can input their gender or if it must be a drop-down menu, having options such as “Male, Female, None of the Above, Prefer not to say.” Never assign an employee’s gender based on how they present to you, don’t assume you know someone’s gender.
Add a “Pronoun” field. Again, best to leave it blank and let the person input their preference. If that is not possible, a drop down menu with following options can help: “He, She, They, Either, None of the above, Other”
If you have an employee directory that lists names, e-mails, phone numbers, and office location, you can add a ‘pronoun’ field to ensure employees address one another correctly.
If you do not have an employee directory, you can add “pronoun” to everyone’s e-mail signatures.
Encourage your customer-facing staff to stop using gendered honorifics like Sir, Ma’am, Miss, Mrs, etc. It’s simply not necessary, and as we move away from a gender binary as a default, more and more often you’ll get it wrong. The best sign of respect to a client is to ask them their name, whether they can be called by their first name, and get the pronunciation correct. If they don’t want to be called by their first name, ask them what their honorific is, “Shall I refer to you as Miss, Mr, Mrs., or is there something else I should use?”
This is a relatively new topic in the HR community, that is long overdue. Undoubtedly we will see more best practice emerge on this in years to come and more resources and information will be available for employers. Until then, here are some excellent links to resources that might be of further assistance:
Please continue to support and follow FACE BC for more information and resources on gender diversity and inclusion, and other professional and personal development programs with an emphasis on intersectional feminism and allyship.