Managing a gender transition at work: ‘listen to the employee’

By David Donaldson

Wednesday September 12, 2018

Gender transitioning in the workplace can bring a lot of uncertainty.

Mark Latchford

The transgender employee has to deal with the anxiety of how colleagues will react, on top of whatever else may be occurring outside the workplace. Colleagues might not fully understand what it means and worry about pronouns, while managers are unsure how to approach the subject.

“The reality is many organisations really have not got their head around some of the challenges that transgender and gender diverse people have in joining an organisation, let alone succeeding within the organisation,” says Mark Latchford, associate director at Pride in Diversity.

This means many trans people don’t feel comfortable being themselves at work — trans and gender diverse people are the members of the LGBTIQ+ community least likely to be out in the workplace, according to a recent report from the Diversity Council of Australia.

“My advice is pretty straightforward: first of all, listen to the employee,” he tells The art of inclusion, a new podcast by the Diversity Council.

“Listen to their story, their experiences, their concerns, their ambitions. That development of empathy between a manager and an employee is critical for productivity and success generically, but it’s particularly important in establishing the confidence of the LGBTI employee.”

Handling these issues well isn’t just good for the employee, but brings long-term benefits to the organisation.

“Transgender folk, when they’re supported, have a great deal of commitment to their employer and rarely move,” Latchford explains.

‘FYI, the name is changing’

Transgender man and health sector executive Aram Hosie describes transitioning as being like a “second puberty”, where one’s body changes physically — but “attempting to manage that while also being an adult”.

Hosie was working at a state government agency when he transitioned, changing his pronouns from female to male and undergoing a change in appearance, he told the podcast.

Aram Hosie

“They had never had anyone transition there before. They didn’t have a policy about transitioning employees, so I didn’t really know what was going to happen when I told my manager that I transitioned. But they essentially said, ‘we don’t know what to do about this but let’s work it out together’, which was kind of fantastic,” he explained.

“They were very person-centred around, ‘well what do you want to do, how do you want to manage this, and we will support you to do that’. Which, given I had no previous experience and no guiding documents about what to do, was actually really great.

“The approach that we took was to keep it very low-key. So we just sent an email to my immediate colleagues that talked about my name changing and they used a subtle change in pronouns from the beginning of the email to the end of the email and that was it.

“We sent that out as an ‘FYI, the name is changing, it would be great if people can try and get that right’, and acknowledging that you might mess that up and that’s okay, and if you’ve got any questions talk to us.”

The email was sent out on a Thursday afternoon to give “time for people to come and ask questions if they needed to, but had the weekend shortly ahead,” he says.

“There was either really happy ‘go you’ kind of emails back to me, I got a couple of questions, they were all really respectful. It was all fairly low-key and then everyone kept moving, which was fantastic.”

And while the idea of using different pronouns can be uncomfortable for some colleagues, it’s an important part of helping trans people feel that the world sees them as they see themselves.

“Certainly, when I was first transitioning, every time someone would use the correct pronoun it was really affirming and exciting,” says Hosie. “Someone would call me, ‘sir’ and I had to control myself, not beaming and being super happy about that.”

Having a policy helps

Although his workplace was supportive, Hosie said he was anxious before talking to his boss because a lack of existing policy meant he didn’t know how the organisation would respond.

“So I think the key thing organisations can do is have something written down somewhere that says ‘we embrace diversity in all of its kinds’ and specifically calls out people of diverse gender identities as part of that, and ideally has a policy for how we would support someone who is transitioning at work,” he thinks.

“Even if that’s never used, or even if there’s no-one on staff who’s known to be transgender. Having that written down in the instance that someone comes along immediately sends a signal that this will be okay.”

Diversity Council research shows that LGBTIQ staff are more likely to be out in workplaces with an inclusive culture and policies, visible LGBTIQ leaders, and a supportive leadership.

Source: Diversity Council of Australia ‘Out at work’ report.

A common response from organisations is that they don’t know how to manage conflict or concerns that may arise, so put pressure on the trans person instead. This is the wrong approach, says Hosie.

“You need to manage how other people respond rather than managing the person who is transitioning,” he argues.

“It becomes a ‘can you not’ or ‘can you slow it down’ or ‘can we do it this way because I’m concerned about other people’, which then puts all the pressure back on the person who’s transitioning to change what’s happening to them for the sake of everyone else.

” … Putting additional demands on the person who’s transitioning is not ideal.”

Recruitment can be a problem

The recruitment process is often seen as a “roadblock” by trans people, explains Latchford.

“The perception that recruiters, external and internal, have unconscious bias about the way transgender people may look, and how they could deal with their organisation’s clients, for example,” he says.

“So often the recruitment process is seen as an extraordinary hurdle. Even the paperwork requested becomes a roadblock.

“When university degrees have different names, police records have different names, these sort of things, good organisations need to consider as part of recruitment.

“On top of that, once a transgender person has been recruited, it really is important that the logistics are complementary. What I mean by that is making sure there are appropriate toilet facilities, for example, that transgender people feel comfortable leveraging, and so forth.”

There’s still a way to go in changing culture, policy and practice, Latchford says.

My dream is that yes, we don’t need to treat the LGBTI community as a community of employees that require particular, special, unique investment and focus.

“The reality is we’re not there yet.”

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