I am sure by now you have seen the Caitlyn Jenner interview. It is emotional and stunning and full of hope. The topic of gender transition is in the spotlight because of Caitlyn’s celebrity.
But what if the employee is an average Joe needing to become Jane (or vice versa), needing to live as their authentic self? How does that translate in a work setting? How can HR support these transitions?
I have been fortunate in my career to be part of the support system for a few employees as they make this change to their identity. I wanted to share some insights I have learned from them. While each situation has been different, there are a few key points to keep in mind.
Plan. An employee may be ready to let everyone know immediately that they are making a change. The HR person needs to pause and put a plan in place to make sure the transition is non-disruptive to the business. Have a plan for logistics- what pronouns to use that are accurate for the employee’s authentic identity and what date the change will be official and when they will start using different bathrooms. There are also HIPAA considerations to take into account. We, as HR professionals, must keep the employee’s medical information confidential.*
Balance. Everyone deserves to live their authentic lives. No one should have to live in hiding. But there is a balance we must strike. We need to make sure that the team members have the tools and training to understand this change in their colleague. Having team meeting to talk about being inclusive is one step. Helping everyone understand that for these employees, they have been living a lie and have had to deny their authentic self for most of their lives. We need to help them learn to welcome their team member as an authentic human.
Safety. One of the many hats that HR wears is to make sure everyone is safe at work. Part of the plan you need to have in place is a safety plan so the employee who is transitioning does not ever feel targeted or unsafe in the workplace. To be totally transparent, the violence against transgender people continues throughout the world. We need to protect them while they are at work. No one should feel afraid. If you need to coordinate a safety plan with your security team, do it. If you need to take disciplinary action against any team members who cause violence, have a plan for how that will look.
Respect. This is a word that I cannot use enough in regards to an employee who is transitioning genders. I would say this is the key word for any HR transaction but let’s not get off topic. This is a daunting change that the employee is facing and the more respectful of their decision that we can be, the easier this is for them. This also sets the tone for how others react.
Openness. I have had some employees transition who do not want to talk about it with their peers. I have asked them for a bit of openness so they can share as much as they are comfortable with the team. I have found that the more open the employee is to say, “It is still me,” the easier their peers have found it. Even simple things like answering the question of, “What should we call you now?” to the more logistical, “You are using the woman’s bathroom now, we are not sure what to think about that.” I am not saying that the transitioning person has to be an open book or feel like they can be interrogated about their decision (see again the comments on HIPAA). I have found that a short team meeting to explain the change and share the basics has made a big impact. Sharing that instead of male pronouns, they should now use the female pronouns (or vice versa) is helpful. There is no playbook to use during these discussions. It is the decision of the transitioning person on what they want to share.
It’s not about you. I have helped to coach a few of my team members on how to deal with their personal beliefs when supporting someone through this. I know this is a highly charged issue. The LGBTQA community has come so far in the last few years, it is hard to believe folks still have concerns about these types of changes. You may not agree with what they are doing, but it is not your decision or your right to judge. As HR professionals, we see a lot of choices made by our employees that might seem different from what we might choose. It’s not about us, it is not about the peers of the team member- it is about supporting all our folks through this change.
I think one of the more touching points in one of the interviews with Bruce was him saying that “there is no right way to do this.” I agree. It will not be perfect and there will be feelings and emotions that come with this sort of change, but HR has to be the champion for our employees. We have an amazing opportunity to drive learning and growth.
This is why we are in HR- to be that coach, and guide, and voice for our employees.
*I found some great resources on www.hrc.org or feel free to contact Lori Fox, Transgender Consultant (who helped me get this right).
Photo Credit: infomatique & Thomas Rousing Photography via Compfight