By Karen Higginbottom for Thomson Reuters
The recent high-profile case of reality TV star Bruce Jenner transitioning into Caitlyn Jenner has highlighted some of the challenges that transgender people face in society.
Those challenges also apply in the workplace, where transgender employees can feel isolated and afraid to come out. What role should HR play in creating and fostering a supportive environment for employees undergoing transition? Transgender employees represent a fraction of the workforce and this may be one reason why the manifold challenges they face have been overlooked by employers in the past.
It may be useful first to define what it means to be “transgender” and “transsexual”. The “Workplace and Gender Reassignment” guide published by the UK government defines transsexuals as a “person who began life as one biological sex, then implements the personal process of gender reassignment to complete a transition to appear and behave as the opposite sex”.
The guide describes “transgender” as an umbrella term to ” … include all people who have experienced gender dysmorphia and express this in some way. Transgender includes transsexual people but is scoped much wider to embrace a wider variety of gender expression including those who have no intention of permanently changing gender and those who do not identify as either man or woman.”
Transgender people face one of the most difficult workplace situations, said Ian Johnson, chief executive of Out Now, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) marketing and strategy consultancy. “Whereas there has been growing awareness of lesbian and gay people in many workplaces in the past decade and more, the ‘T’ part of the LGBT workforce is in many companies only now being recognised. High-profile people such as Caitlyn Jenner coming out have raised awareness, but this doesn’t automatically make lives easier for the many thousands of transgender people at work.”
LGBT: the next frontier for corporate life
In fact, only 27 percent of transgender employees in the UK are ‘out to everyone at work’ and 33 percent of transgender employees are still ‘not out to anyone at work’, according to the Out Now Global LGBT2030 study. These figures for transgender employees are depressing when compared with gay men in the UK workplace: 51 percent of them are ‘out to everyone at work’.
“Many (transgender) remain in the closet due to their fears of what can happen if they dare reveal their true selves to work colleagues,” Johnson said.
“Many in the transgender community find themselves at the beginning of a great journey of change. They are where gay men and lesbians were in the 1990s in terms of ‘will I or will I not come out?’ It’s the next frontier for corporate life as organisations need to understand that people will not be as effective as they could be unless you build a workplace where you can be ‘yourself’. We know that people will be more productive and be better off because they feel safe to take that step to ‘come out’.”
One of the challenges facing transgender employees was the issue of acceptability, said Dianah Worman, diversity adviser for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “It’s the responsibility of the employer to help protect the individual and explore the problems that can occur with transitioning into another gender. It’s often a tough call for the individual themselves about whether they are going to go through [the] whole process of gender re-assignment.”
The importance of allies
The workplace can be an isolating place for transgender employees especially without the support of “allies”: those emloyees who support the LGBT community and stand up for LGBT rights in the workplace. The 2014 LGBT2030 global study revealed that 32 percent of transgender employees in the UK felt they had no allies in the workplace. The situation was slightly better for transgender employees in the United States, with only one in four transgender employees saying that they did not have an ally in the workplace.
Allies aren’t just employees who are heterosexual, said Todd Sears, founder of Out Leadership. “There is a huge responsibility for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees to be allies to each other. As it relates to transgender employees, it’s about being able to note they have the support of lesbian, gay and bisexual colleagues as well as straight colleagues.”
Johnson said organisations could support transgender employees in many ways, Johnson said. “The first and one of the most important things is for a senior manager at the company, and also the manager of an individual work site, to understand the importance of them communicating clearly to all at work that some people may be transgender and might not yet be out as such in their own workplaces,” he said.
He said those employers which made it clear that transgender people were important, valued and respected work colleagues sent a clear message to all staff that this was a workplace which respected and valued individual difference. It also reassured other employees who might be dealing with a whole range of situations, not necessarily to do with transgender issues, that the company valued them and supported them.
Sears said the financial sector was leading the way in terms of offering progressive health benefits for transgender employees. “We have 27 members who are financial services firms and 81 percent of them have trans-inclusive policies.”
How can HR support transgender employees in the workplace?
Johnson said HR needed to be aware that many transgender employees were still secretive and closeted as they greatly feared the possible repercussions were they to come out. “HR can assist middle management by making clear and regular re-statements that diversity in their workplace includes many different characteristics, including being trans, and that all people are encouraged to work in this workplace on their own terms as to how they are at work, with colleagues and with clients.”
By law, once a person has transitioned into another gender and has a gender recognition certificate, then under the Gender Recognition Act 2004, that individual is entitled to be treated as their new gender, said Audrey Williams, employment partner at Fox Williams. “HR has to change employee records and there is a confidentiality provision against anyone in HR disclosing they might have been a previous gender.”
Organisations that put in place progressive policies and create an inclusive work culture for transgender employees were actually helping a whole range of diverse groups in the workplace, Sears said. “This is a minuscule population. B, but if you look at what companies are doing around transgender employees, then it can help all employees as it breaks down all gender stereotypes.”
Bank of America Merrill Lynch case study
Ama Afrifa-Kyei, EMEA diversity and inclusion manager at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said the bank did not have a specific HR policy for transgender employees. “All strands are covered under one inclusive HR policy. We ensure that, where possible, our benefits are gender neutral,” she said.
The bank recently reviewed its medical benefits scheme and designed a benefit that aims to provide support to transgender individuals. The bank provides cover relating to gender reassignment via a healthcare trust with its private medical insurer.
“We’ve also implemented a private genital surgery-only benefit for employees and eligible dependents who have been through the NHS assessment/hormone replacement process and who are awaiting surgery,” Afrifa-Kyei said. She said this benefit was the first of its kind in the UK.
“The role of our medical benefits scheme is to provide support that is ‘supplemental to the NHS’ rather than directly replacing it. With this in mind, it was felt that the bank could add most value by allowing members to use the scheme to access private pelvic surgery for the treatment of gender dysphoria.”
The HR team also offers support via its Employee Assistant Programme should either the manager or the employee need to speak confidentially about their concerns.
“It’s very much about supporting the employee undergoing transition and who will be coming back to work. It’s also about supporting line managers. We help managers to understand the challenges that transgender employees are going through and work with them to provide practical steps, such as if someone needs time out for transition or how to equip teams to be supportive of a transgender employee undergoing transition,” Afrifa-Kyei said.
“Also, as part of our LGBT Ally programme, we offer transgender 101 training which assists with providing a common set of language and concepts around transgender issues and why these are important in the workplace.”