How to Ease Transgender Transitions at Work
Connie Rice came out to her parents when she was in seventh grade.
That was decades ago, when the term “transgender” wasn’t in most people’s lexicons. Her admission “didn’t go anywhere,” she says, and Rice buried her authentic self until a few years ago, after she was diagnosed with cancer at age 50.
“I just couldn’t hold back any longer,” she says. She opened up to loved ones and started therapy and hormone treatments. A year into the process, she approached the local HR representative at her employer, a large technology company. “I put it as, ‘Hey, I have one of those interesting “Oh yeah, I’ve had a case like that” situations that you’ll be able to talk about.’ ”
The company’s nondiscrimination policy was transgender-inclusive, but it offered no trans-sensitivity training for her colleagues—which Rice took the lead on developing. In December 2012, she underwent facial-feminization surgery and breast augmentation—to the tune of $30,000—and scheduled full gender-reassignment surgery but, because of a harshly worded clause that prevented coverage for transgender-related care in the company’s healthcare policy, she was facing an overwhelming financial burden.
“I was financially wiped out,” she says, noting that, with three kids, the guilt of the costs—coupled with the general stressors and fears of this life-changing transition—took a significant toll on her mental health. Added to that, her position at work had undergone changes, leading her to feel isolated—a feeling that deepened as some colleagues distanced themselves once she came out. By October 2013, Rice says, she was coming to work every day contemplating suicide.
The company eventually revamped its health policy, but because of other changes at the organization, she ultimately moved on to IBM, where she has gotten involved in a number of trans-inclusion initiatives. She most recently consulted on the design of “Helping Transgender Employees Make the Transition at Work,” which provides a model for successfully navigating a worker’s gender transition. While the multi-step guide, developed in partnership with Human Rights Campaign and unveiled in a white paper released on International Transgender Day of Visibility in March, lays down a framework for the process, it is designed to be flexible and driven by the employees themselves—aspects that experts say are central to creating a truly trans-inclusive workplace experience.
While an increasing number of organizations have added gender-identity protections to their nondiscrimination policies in recent years, blanket rules alone won’t necessarily mean employees feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work. Instead, experts agree, organizations need to undergo their own transition—one that aligns policies and practices with the company’s core values, and involves both ongoing education and a commitment to employee empowerment.
Building the Framework
Education and empowerment are at the heart of IBM’s new framework—though “new” is not the best descriptor.
Joy Dettorre, IBM’s global HR leader for LGBT+ constituency, says the guide streamlines an approach the company has long taken when it comes to workplace transitions—employee-driven, with the ongoing involvement of the employee’s manager and HR—and “formally documents it,” supplementing the approach with extensive research and training materials. If an employee comes out as transgender to a manager, or a new hire mentions a transgender identity, this action plan—as long as the worker consents—is set in motion.
Managers can access an online learning module to review issues regarding confidentiality before diving into a “Preparation” phase that involves an overview of concepts and terminology relating to the transgender experience. The manager also works with the employee and HR to come up with an individualized transition plan—which is where flexibility is key.
“Every time we have an employee transitioning, we have to understand their individual, unique needs and then apply this supportive framework in a way that addresses their individual requirements,” Dettorre says. “Our goal would be to identify the employee at the beginning of their transition. This way, they benefit from the holistic support outlined within the framework. Employees consistently articulate feelings of relief when they realize that our comprehensive approach includes HR, the manager and their team, who go on that journey right along with them. But it is the employee who will drive the conversation, who will drive outcomes and who will tell us exactly what their needs are.”
In that vein, it is up to the employee if the plan includes a workshop for colleagues. The 60-minute session features five animated videos voiced by transgender IBMers telling their own personal stories, as well as an overview of language, statistics about the transgender experience, the importance of using trans individuals’ proper names and pronouns and other contextual issues. The transitioning employees decide if they want to attend or not, Dettorre notes.
Dettorre leads the workshop with the employee’s manager. The manager involvement, she says, “provides the perfect opportunity to set the right tenor and tone and role model the inclusive experience we expect from the team.” The program is designed to be personalized—the transitioning employee reviews all of the materials ahead of time and makes suggestions for changes—and participants are asked at the start if they know anyone who has transitioned, which Dettorre says generates a number of raised hands and makes the conversation more relatable.
Rice was one of a number of transgender IBM employees who helped design the educational materials in the framework. Among the input they provided, she says, was insight into the broader scope of a person’s transition experience.
“When someone’s going through a transition, I don’t think people at work necessarily realize how much is going on,” she says. Rice notes trans individuals may face divorce, loss of family or friends, custody battles and harassment. At work, there could be anxiety about losing their job or “discrimination by exclusion”—such as client-facing employees being prevented from pursuing big accounts if the company is worried how clients will respond to trans employees.
“Transitioning can create overwhelming—and I’m not using that word lightly—fear and stress,” Rice says. “Part of it is work but not all of it—but it all affects work.”
However, she adds, gender identity is just one element of a trans employee’s life. “I don’t go to work to be trans; it’s just one aspect of my life,” she says, noting leaders involved in building the framework listened to the trans IBMers’ advice on the need for materials that educated about the transgender experience, while communicating the shared humanity among trans and non-trans employees.
That storytelling element can be essential to promoting a culture of inclusion, says Heath Fogg Davis, director of the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“The humanizing factor there is incredibly important—to break down stereotypes and to show there is a whole range of what ‘trans’ sounds and looks like,” says Fogg Davis, author of Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?.
Storytelling was a key component of many campaigns to press for marriage equality for same-sex couples.
“The more people knew someone who was gay or lesbian, that went a long way to breaking down prejudice,” Fogg Davis says, “and I think the same is starting to happen with transgender people, and personal stories are a big part of that.”
Such efforts can be bolstered by illustrating concrete actions co-workers and companies can take to ease the burden on trans individuals, says Lily Zheng, diversity and inclusion consultant, executive coach and author of Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace.
Storytelling can often get employees to put their phones down and pay attention, she says, but without tangible actions afterwards, “They’re going to just pick their phones back up, say, ‘Those people had a bad experience, I’m sorry for them.’
“If you hit people with a story and then say, ‘This would’ve never been so bad if this had happened’ or ‘Let’s commit to doing this one thing in the workplace,’ that’s when it’s more effective. Real genuine organizational and strategy work needs to happen.”
For IBM, that follow-through is designed to be addressed in the “Support” phase, where Dettorre says “the real work happens, the tough stuff.”
HR provides guidance for managers to help them keep an eye out for potential pain points, she says, while an HR generalist periodically touches base with both the manager and employee to ensure there are no areas of concern.
“When the employee authentically expresses themselves in the workplace, the manager and HR should periodically meet with the employee and intentionally monitor team and workplace behavior regularly,” she says.
While outright anti-trans discrimination may be most visible in the hiring arena, trans workers often face daily microaggressions, Zheng says, which can snowball. For her book, she and co-author Alison Ash Fogarty interviewed 25 people who identify along the transgender spectrum about their workplace experiences. A common refrain was the subtle undermining of their identities—by co-workers, managers and HR professionals.
“They would often misgender people with the wrong pronouns and then correct themselves in a way that didn’t feel right. They may say, ‘He … Oh, haha, sheee,’ ” Zheng recounts. “All these small things add to big outcomes.” Complaints about such treatment can lead to retaliation, isolation, lost confidence and productivity—and ultimately, missed promotions or termination.
While educating colleagues is vital, trans employees may also benefit from engaging in their own conversations with those with shared experiences.
At IBM, the company connects trans workers with any of its 52 LGBT employee-resource groups across the globe, as well as an online portal only for trans-identifying employees.
“This really provides some legs to the documentation of the framework,” says Rosalia Thomas, IBM’s director of diversity and inclusion. “These are all people who have gone through this process, whether at IBM or another company, and they’re more than willing to share their experiences and their expertise with other employees.”
Connecting Paper to Practice
Creating a culture that both welcomes and supports transgender employees requires that organizations ingrain inclusion in both their policies and their practices, experts say. For instance, Rice says, while her former employer allowed her to develop a comprehensive training, its exclusionary health plan ran counter to that work.