In recent months, the public has been captivated with news stories about Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenner. Almost 3 million viewers watched the first episode of the reality series I Am Cait, and other TV shows with transgender leads are receiving broad viewership and critical acclaim. However, transgender isn’t just a Hollywood buzzword, nor is it isolated to urban office environments. People identify as transgender regardless of where they live or what they do for a living.
According to a report by the Williams Institute in 2011, approximately 700,000 adults in the United States identify as transgender. This number would likely be much higher today, given increasing social acceptance. Although 19 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity, numbers released by the Movement Advancement Project show that 52% of the LGBT population live in states that do not have gender identity protections. That means there are thousands upon thousands of individuals who identify as the opposite gender spread across the United States in every type of work environment, regardless of whether there are laws protecting them.
While some businesses have cutting edge diversity practices, including a stand-alone transgender policy and a LGBT committee, others are still struggling to keep sex jokes off the shop floor. However, some of the best practices in response to transitioning employees have come out of businesses where I least expected it, including transport, construction, and manufacturing companies. Even the dirtiest, toughest environments can respond in the most real, caring way. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from the experiences of some of these businesses:
1. Preparation Is Better than Reaction
Assume you already have a transgender employee. How would you like him or her to feel even if he or she never made a transition request? Creating a culture of respect attracts and retains talent and allows you to nimbly respond if a gender transition request occurs. In 19 states, including Washington, Oregon and California, you have to comply with non-discrimination laws regardless of whether an employee notifies you of his or her decision to re-assign gender.
2. Create Compliant Practices
The first step is to review all of your current policies and practices that could implicate or affect a transgender individual or applicant. These include hiring practices, background checks, internal record-keeping, use of identity documents, dress and grooming standards, harassment training, and medical leave. Next consider what new procedures and policies you may need to create, including a bullying policy, diversity training, and an internal transition response checklist.
#3. Respect Boundaries
Sometimes responding to a transitioning employee makes you feel like you’re walking a tightrope. Whose needs do you need to take care of first—the transitioning employee or the surprised workmates? Instead of panicking about how to keep from offending either side, focus on helping both sides respond to change. Because that’s what this really is—something new, not something weird. Introduce, communicate, and respect boundaries (and communicate some more).
#4. Deal with the Bathroom Issue Now
What people are afraid of more than anything else is the bathroom situation. A recent 8th Circuit decision rejected a religious discrimination and hostile work environment claim because a transgender employee (previously male) was allowed to use the female restroom. The courts--and your transitioning employees--will expect you to accommodate restroom needs. Determine now whether you can create a gender neutral bathroom space. If you have more than one restroom, can you identify one that is reasonably accessible as gender neutral?
In addition to looking at your facilities, begin the conversation with your employees about your desire to have restroom space that makes all of your employees, vendors, customers, clients and their friends and family comfortable. Also, encourage dialogue about the fear or discomfort about sharing bathrooms. The more frequent the conversation, the more fears are neutralized.
#5. Stay in Touch
Even after the paperwork is complete, the restrooms are squared away and the work mates have been informed, you need to regularly check in with the transitioning employee, his or her supervisor and the crew. Harassment and bullying can rear its ugly head at any time, and you are legally responsible for maintaining a work environment that allows all an equal opportunity to perform his or her best. More important is maintaining your culture. Every business I have worked with has respect as a foundation of its culture. If you can assure respect for all employees, your legal compliance will fall in place.
Jodi Slavik is an employment attorney and regional director of Vigilant, a company dedicated to helping companies in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho and California solve their most complex employment issues.