Transgender rights have become one of the most-discussed stories this year, even making the cover of Time magazine. Meanwhile, the legal fight continues over North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law. Last week, the Obama administration spoke up with a directive that instructs every public school district in the U.S. to allow transgender students to use restrooms that match the gender with which they identify.
No matter how one feels about this issue (and last week’s New York Times article on the Department of Education’s directive offers a trove of comments), the reality is that transgendered individuals are here to stay. And everyone within an organization, not just those within the human resources department, need to know the practicalities of supporting a newly-transitioning employee — and what is also needed by his or her co-workers.
To that end, TriplePundit spoke with Beck Bailey, the deputy director of employee engagement at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. He explained that regardless of the debate going on between the feds in Washington, D.C. and North Carolina’s state government in Raleigh, corporate America is actually ahead of much of society when it comes to ensuring a comfortable work environment for transgender employees.
“You might think that the protection of transgender rights is a new, trendy thing,” Bailey told us, “but the truth is that corporate America has been a leader in this space for the inclusion of transgender people.”
Bailey explained that when the HRC launched its Corporate Equality Index for the first time in 2002, only 3 percent of the companies it surveyed had protections related to gender identity. Today, 75 percent of companies reporting to the HRC have transgender protections. “This is important because the laws have not caught up,” Bailey explained, “including the fact that we still have no federal law that protects transgender people in the workplace.”
So, business has taken the lead on this issue, and action is not relegated to “edgy” companies such as Facebook, Google and their peers within the technology sector. Companies in all industries, such as energy, defense and aerospace, continue to adopt inclusive policies for transgender employees — including Boeing, Chevron, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Shell Oil.
Such companies adopted policies in line, or at least similar to, the guidelines and best practices the HRC suggests for fostering transgender inclusion within the workplace. These recommendations include:
Adding gender identity as a protected category
Employment policies that lay out protected categories should include the terms “gender identity or expression” or “gender identity.” Such policies should not only be included in employee handbooks available to all of a company’s stakeholders, but also be articulated online.
Clear gender transition guidelines for the workplace
It is not enough to say “gender identity” is included in the non-discrimination policies within a company’s human resources manual. Everyone in a company should be prepared to manage a gender transition.
Protocols that outline the responsibilities and expectations of transitioning employees need to be established in order to manage such a situation so that everyone — from the transgender employee to his or her supervisor, and that person’s colleagues — are prepared and confident during this time.
The HRC suggests guidelines that establish who within the organization is helping this person manage his or her transition; what a transgender employee can expect from management during this time; the procedures for implementing workplace changes related to the transition (such as a new email address and when to update personnel records); and a document covering frequently asked questions related to concerns such as dress codes and restroom use.
“If your company hasn’t talked about this at all,” Bailey explained during our interview, “then you are really leaving that manager flat-footed and ill prepared for such a conversation.”
Incorporate gender identity into diversity training programs
Such policies should not assume employees are “ignorant.” But the fact is that human resources professionals should ensure their diversity training programs at least avoid awkwardness, or at most, a lawsuit.
Whether such instruction involves individual modules or more comprehensive educational programs that involve external trainers, education programs related to gender identity will depend on the size and need of each individual organization. And when someone transitions on the job, such training is not just about providing insight on transgender issues, but also on emphasizing workplace fairness for all employees from all backgrounds.
Employees and contractors should be made aware of how these policies apply during the day-to-day work environment; board members and company executives may need to know how such policies involving transgender people can enhance a firm’s competitive advantage or reduce risk.
Restroom access for transgender employees
Regardless of the stage of their transition, employees should have unrestricted access to a restroom aligned with his or her gender identity. The kind of facility could depend on local regulations; some jurisdictions, for example, require single-occupant bathrooms to be “gender neutral.” Whatever form these restrooms may take, the HRC has a set of recommended guidelines so that all employees feel comfortable in the workplace.
Dress codes that avoid gender stereotypes
Indeed, dress codes requiring men to wear business suits and women to wear dresses are legal in most places, but such rules still reinforce gender stereotypes. Nevertheless, companies can establish dress codes that emphasize professional attire in order to project a certain image. The key here is consistency — meaning the dress code applies to all employees fairly and does not favor one gender over the other.
The bottom line
So, the devil’s advocate asks: Why would a company go through all this? Why not have a gender identity policy inserted into the employee manual and be done with it, as this is covering a very small ratio of the working population?
“Bottom line: The business case revolves around attracting and retaining talent,” Bailey said as we wrapped up our interview. “If I want the best mechanical engineer, I don’t want to lose that engineer to a company that is more trans-inclusive than my company. In today’s competition for top employees, being diverse and inclusive is good for talent retention. Most people want to do the right thing, but when we do nothing, that has its own repercussions, as in discouraging employees and causing a chilly atmosphere in the workplace.”
Image credit: Flickr/Ted Eytan