Straight Talk: Communicating Gender Transition in the Workplace

If I worked with Bruce Jenner on the job for a few years, I would have gotten to know quite a bit about him. I’d know he was married to a woman, how many children he had, how to spot him in a crowd at a company event, and that he typically wear khakis on casual Fridays.

I must admit that I’d be confused and cautious if he showed up all of a sudden with a new face, name, hairdo and outfit. Bruce has become Caitlyn. The same man I’ve gotten to know, respect and work closely with is now living life as woman and no one told me what to do or expect.

While many organizations put time and effort into developing a culture that supports gay and lesbian employees they often ignore the culture shift that takes place when an employee chooses to become transgender. A transgender employee is defined as someone whose gender identity, expression or assignment differs from the gender assumptions made about him or her at birth. There are workplace barriers and challenges facing transgender employees. Some transgender employees will undergo gender transition while within an organization – a process that may take months or even years. Others will have completed the transition before they were hired or have a history of a transition in their younger years.

How should organizations prepare to communicate this shift in ways that support transgender employees while sustaining the culture of the workplace environment?

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Organizations should have a transition plan in place to set guidelines for safe and healthy development of transgender employees and to assist other employees in their adjustment to the shift. A gender transition plan should feature three parts: the organizational policy, a training component and a communication strategy. The communication strategy within the plan is critical and should be carefully thought out and executed. The strategy should also be supported by the organization’s non-discrimination policy used to manage a gender transition.

When tackling communication about the transition of a transgender employee, messages should be strategically scheduled and segmented. Start with gathering the employee’s immediate work team/group for an intimate meeting with discussion and training to ensure clarity and confidentiality. The employee can opt to make a statement at the meeting or prepare a personal letter to be distributed. From there, the messages must be gradually integrated with HR policies and directed from senior leadership to co-workers and key constituents who are in frequent workplace contact with the employee. Allowing the voice of a senior leader to set the tone of the announcement with supportive communication for the employee creates expectations for co-workers going forward. While the announcement may lessen the likelihood of confusion and lay a foundation for acceptance (relearning names, matching pronouns, etc.), an organization should allow the employee the liberty to choose when the announcement should be made, if/she wants to help craft the announcement and a chance to cancel or delay the announcement if needed.

A key point in the messaging about the use of restrooms should state that the transgender employee would use the restroom of the gender he/she presents for practical reasons. The safety of the employee should also be considered. Direct communication with the organization’s security team should occur specifically to be on alert about any harassment or bullying.

Enlist a senior leader, a licensed counselor, an employee who has undergone a gender transition, an HR professional and the employee’s supervisor to assemble a transition team. Identify a senior leader who can sponsor the employee as a supporter who is engaged throughout the process. The sponsor can be charged with helping a transgender employee manage his/her transition in the workplace and also help advise the transition team on inclusive messaging. This helps to minimize any disruption in the workplace and convey the message that everything is business as usual. Additionally, developing a resource group for LGBT employees creates a sense of community for the transgender employee as they transition.

gender-reassignment-surgeryWhen communicating with the transgender employee, inform him/her what to expect from the transition team and senior leadership in facilitating the transition. Have an open yet reassuring discussion with him/her about potential hostility or perceived discomfort with certain co-workers and that the organization is prepared to help them with transition as well. Explain the process of how the transition will be announced and steadily implement the tactics of the communication strategy soon after the employee notifies HR of the transition process. Explain what the procedure is for implementing any workplace and personnel changes such as name changes, business cards, and security badges. Work with HR to monitor the adjustment of the employee and his/her relationship with co-workers through a follow-up after the transition to be aware of gossip, mistreatment and offensive communication that can impact the overall workplace culture.

An employee’s gender transition can be a major shift for an organization but embracing a workplace culture where diversity and inclusion thrives can happen at any time. Combating potential issues and preventing misinformation can be addressed through educational diversity training specific to sexual orientation or gender identity issues. Without a communication strategy, the doors swing open for confusion, tension, miscommunication or even grievances and lawsuits.

While each employee is entitled to his or her own opinions and beliefs, no one should take the personal privilege to judge or dictate the rights of other employees within the workplace. When a gender transition is communicated properly and succinctly, the transgender employee can be met with a level of inclusiveness that translates how well your organization values diversity within the workplace culture.

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