An Interview with Karen DeJarnette

Fabrice Houdart, Out Leadership’s Managing Director of Global Equality Initiatives, spoke with Karen DeJarnette, Expedia Group’s SEO Manager of Hotel Operations and D&I Business Strategy Leader.


Tell us a little more about yourself KD.

My name is Karen DeJarnette, and I have had a long career in a variety of roles. I grew up in the Washington, DC area and moved to the Seattle area 30 years ago (yes, I am old – I once shook hands with Thomas Jefferson! In Colonial Williamsburg!). I always knew I was different, but I resisted figuring it out for a very long time, due to shame, denial and repression. However, at the end of 2014, I faced a personal crisis moment where I had to address my secret issue, and I accepted myself as transgender. I slowly came out at work in 2015 only to discover I was the first trans person in my company’s history to come out and transition on the job. It’s been a long journey, and I have persevered.

How did you hear about the position you currently occupy? 

I got the job pre-transition. I heard about the role via LinkedIn.

What is it like to work here? How did the company welcome you? Did they have to change anything in their policy and procedures when you joined? 

As the first person to go through transition on the job, there was no roadmap for this. I had to work with each department (IT, HR, Benefits, D&I and my own teams in what I do) to get things done. My coming out was sort of a non-event for my immediate team, as I was never misgendered by them, although I know HR worked with them to ensure this was not an issue. When I came out in 2015, there were no medical benefits for transgender employees, so I took on that battle and drove needed changes to the company’s Benefits team. As a result, we have been an HRC CEI 100 company for 5 years now, and we have one of the best transgender healthcare benefits programs available in the industry. I also am a known company leader in the D&I world here due to my involvement as a Board member of the company LGBTQIA employee resource group. I also founded the company’s Transgender and Gender Non-conforming Inclusion Advisory Council to help drive more inclusive policies and awareness issues.

How is your relationship with colleagues? Do you feel welcomed and valued? 

I now have the absolute best manager I’ve had in my entire career. She’s supportive, encouraging, and helps me be successful. With her encouragement, I now lead my global team’s D&I efforts with twice quarterly D&I events covering all sorts of topics, from Pride, Black History Month, Neurodiversity, Women’s issues and more. Our last event was Disability Awareness and Mythbusting with an amazing fellow working for us, who is the founder of our employee resource group for people with disabilities.

Does the company have an employee resource group? Do you participate? How does it work? 

Yes, as already mentioned, I joined as a volunteer of our LGBTQIA group in 2015 to help drive changes to the company for transgender people (many more came out after me), and I got elected to the ERG Board that fall. When I was there, I increased the number of regional chapters from just a handful to well over 30 globally, and tripled the global membership to over 2,000+. I specifically focused my work on internal advocacy to the top company leadership, who sought me out for input in LGBTQIA business and community issues. I was the primary author of a new set of ERG governance documents for HR, a templated constitution for ERGs that standardized the way all of the employee groups operate and are represented in the company, as well as the proposed draft of the company’s first Transgender Guidelines and Policies document. I also drove the company to support the allowance of elected ERG Board members to spend 10% of their work week devoted to ERG projects and have that work included as part of their review process.

What does it mean for you, from your history, to have this opportunity? Were you the first trans person in the company? If so, what does it represent for you? 

I was the first, and the company, as well as the world, has come a long way since 2015 in normalizing the idea that trans people are just people. I am grateful for the support I’ve received, the opportunities I’ve had to grow as a leader, and do the incredibly important work of D&I advocacy in my job, which is not even with the D&I team.

How do you see your contribution to the company? 

The Global Chief Inclusion Officer once called me a “well-known rock star in the world of D&I” among the company’s employee base as well as in the senior leadership team. While that may have been generous flattery, I have been honored to participate and represent not just my community, but all marginalized communities of employees through my passion for D&I in helping drive positive change for all.

Tell us how your company engaged in promoting the human rights of LGBTI and transgender people. What motivated this engagement? How might hiring transgender people have contributed to the development of your company? 

I was introduced to Fabrice Houdart when he worked for the Office of Human Rights with the United Nations. He introduced me to the UN Standards of Conduct for Business as it related to the LGBTI community. The message that “LGBTI rights are human rights” naturally resonated with me, so I took his information and lobbied successfully for the company’s CEO to sign on to the accord. That, along with driving the company to sign on to the corporate sponsorship list for the Equality Act as well as earning our first HRC CEI 100 score, were my proudest moments as an employee in the company. Now our company is mandating that D&I issues be addressed in the recruiting process as well. All of this work was grassroots driven by many passionate, vocal employees in the ERGs, not just me.

Do you believe that the interpersonal relationships among the employees have improved? Can you tell me an experience that demonstrates this improvement? 

Oh yes! The company is fully embracing the use of one’s personal pronouns in many of its internal apps and processes, and strongly advocates that all people participate. We’ve just had our first-ever, anonymous SelfID survey done to help HR understand how large our diverse communities are to better set priorities and drive positive change, and we just published our first company-wide Inclusion & Diversity report. One of our most popular internal training classes is our Ally Skills for Diversity. All of this and more have led to a greater understanding and familiarity with members of disadvantaged communities, and this encourages people to not get hung up on differences of the messenger, but focus on the ideas within their messages.

What actions does your company take to promote the rights of transgender persons among suppliers and production chains? Could you give examples? 

This I cannot answer in detail, as I don’t know the ins-and-outs of that part of the business, but any issues relating to including anti-discriminatory supplier contract language that are required for the HRC CEI survey were resolved years ago.

What actions does your company take to promote the rights of transgender persons among your clients? Could you give examples? (e.g. campaigns and messages to customers)

I drove the work that resulted in the renewed LGBTQ Welcoming Hotels campaign starting last fall with Orbitz, which included working with the hotels portfolio team, corporate legal, and software engineers to fix technical blocking issues and more. Orbitz now sponsors several LGBTQIA charities, drives community awareness in the marketplace, and has built-up a huge portfolio of LGBTQ welcoming hotels that is leading the hospitality business sector for our community. I also introduced the good folks at International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) to the hotels team, which signed on with them to be hotel travel partners for cross-marketing purposes. I also drove the company to sign on to several amicus briefs to the US Supreme Court in support of transgender rights cases.

What did the company need to perform these actions? What has been the impact of these actions? Can you describe if you felt any difference in productivity and creativity in your company after these actions? How did the market react? How does the company benefit from this type of action? Does the company have something to lose by doing this kind of action? 

Market reaction to the Orbitz campaign has been positive, but it was launched just after last summer’s vacation season travel, and then, of course, COVID hit the travel and hospitality industry hard last year, so we look forward to serving the LGBTQIA community once customers are ready to travel again – we’ll be here for them. We’ve also introduced a number of media pieces showcasing our diversity as a company as well as our support for the LGBTQIA community of travel shoppers. Of course, our continuing efforts have maintained our perfect 100 core status as a Best Place to Work for LGBTQ Employees by the HRC Corporate Equality Index, even as their guidelines have become more strict.

What would you say to companies that have not yet taken action to better support trans employees? 

How companies treat one segment of the underprivileged communities population represents how they truly feel about all those communities. Diversity, equity and inclusion is not about cherry picking a group or two that you find least offensive. It’s about helping all people, all customers, and all employees, to be able to use your company’s products and services while feeling free to be their authentic selves. While one might ideally believe this should be a given, it is sadly not, so in 2021, it is still notable when companies do the right thing for all people in the first place, without having to be publicly shamed into treating all people equally. I am grateful that my company sees me for who I am and what I have to offer them by way of my leadership, technical prowess, and good business judgment. That’s who I always was, and that part of me is why I was hired in the first place, before my transition. But now I am a happier person, living my real life and still doing good work. When all companies can get past the petty biases and preconceived notions of some in their senior leadership and their hiring managers toward groups of people they may not know or simply just hate for being themselves, the world will be a much better place.

Karen DeJarnette, Expedia Group’s SEO Manager of Hotel Operations and D&I Business Strategy Leader