Scott Raynor

There’s good reason to be optimistic about the future of transgender issues in the workplace.

Acceptance and awareness of transgender issues is on the rise among both the general population and the business world. Between 2002 and 2017, the percentage of Fortune 500 companies that have workplace protections on the basis gender identity has increased from 3 percent to 83 percent.

Still, a number of troubling transgender issues in the workplace remain. Transgender workers face scattershot legal protections, numerous obstacles in workplace cultures, and high levels of harassment and abuse. The key to trans friendly workplaces lies in better understanding their unique challenges, and adjusting practices and policies to their varied needs.

Trans workers face numerous roadblocks in accessing employment opportunities.

With an unemployment rate three times higher that of the U.S. average, much of the transgender employment discrimination faced by these workers reveals itself in the employment process.

The reality of their degree of societal acceptance—27 percent of Americans say they wouldn’t befriend a transgender person—incentivizes trans applicants to hide their identity in interviews and applications, according to Samantha Allen of the Daily Beast:

In an ideal world, of course, being transgender would be about as relevant to the job application process as having brown eyes. But in the current environment, accepting the unfortunate inevitability—or at least, the likelihood—of being outed may be an important first step depending on one’s individual situation.

Trans employees experience abusive coworkers, unprepared employers, and cultural challenges.

Once within the workplace, transgender workers face a slew of other difficulties: startling rates of outright abuse, well-intentioned but unprepared employers, and workplace cultures that punish trans employees for even indirectly revealing their identity.

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Transgender issues in the workplace that include frequent discrimination and harassment.

While some trans friendly workplaces exist, tragically, transgender employees still frequently experience targeted harassment and discrimination in the workplace. While reported rates of such treatment vary, according to a 2011 survey, 90 percent of respondents claimed to have “directly experienced harassment or mistreatment at work.”

This harassment and mistreatment can manifest in a number of ways—survey respondents noted the following rates of mistreatment:

  • 50 percent reported being harassment by coworkers
  • 41 percent said they’d been asked inappropriate questions about their transgender or surgical status
  • 23 percent said they’ve missed out on a promotion
  • 20 percent said they were prevented from directly contacting clients
  • 7 percent reported experiencing physical violence
  • 6 percent being sexually assaulted

Sadly, these already-high rates of mistreatment rise even higher for transgender workers of color.

Employers mean well, but feel “a lot of anxiety” in addressing transgender issues in the workplace.

While employers have made real strides in including gay and lesbian employees, many still feel “a lot of anxiety” around transgender issues, according to Colin McFarlane, director of LGBT charity Stonewall Scotland.

“There’s a lack of understanding about what the real issues are. Some employers lump trans issues in with sexuality,” he said. “…Employers still have that lack of understanding.”

Chief among these issues, McFarlane said, is access to bathrooms matching trans workers’ gender identity.

In general, transgender individuals use the public restrooms that match their gender identity, as opposed to the sex they were assigned at birth. While numerous states and municipalities bar such access, in the workplace, the EEOC considers it a right protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration describes the necessity of this protection as one of promoting inclusion while protecting trans workers’ safety:

Accordingly, authorities on gender issues counsel that it is essential for employees to be able to work in a manner consistent with how they live the rest of their daily lives, based on their gender identity. Restricting employees to using only restrooms that are not consistent with their gender identity, or segregating them from other workers by requiring them to use gender-neutral or other specific restrooms, singles those employees out and may make them fear for their physical safety.

Despite this protection, such issues have been reported to happen frequently. Of the 90 percent of transgender workers who reported having faced discrimination in the workplace, nearly 25 percent were told to use bathrooms not matching their gender identity, among other discriminatory behaviors.

Transgender activist Jane Fae told the Guardian that such incidents often occur when leadership attempts to compromise with any staff that might object. While she thinks those with religious objections should “have a space for them to explore that,” she said restricting access makes matters worse.

“People try and fix this problem in ways that people often don’t realise are offensive, such as saying if you’re trans you can use the disabled facility,” she said. “It just marks people out as different, and if there are any employees who don’t like people transitioning, it almost endorses that.”

Transgender workers feel pressure to hide their gender identity, potentially limiting their career potential.

As a result of much of the discriminatory behavior they experience, transgender workers experience pervasive pressure to remain closeted. Approximately 71 percent of transgender workers polled by the National Center for Transgender Equality reported hiding their transition or gender at work.

Actively obscuring one’s identity, opinions, and feelings is known as “covering,” and for LGBT employees, covering often comes at the cost of progress in their career and personal life, according to Human Rights Watch.

Covering behavior necessitates trans workers to be more cautious and guarded in casual workplace conversations. While this seeming lack of exposure to small talk may not appear detrimental, missing out on these conversations means missing out on bonding that may otherwise result in opportunities for advancement and mentorship, according to Human Rights Watch.

What’s more, covering itself is not feasible for many trans workers.

Trans workers often lack the ability to conceal their gender identity, and are protected by few gender identity discrimination laws.

Hiding one’s transgender status, or “going stealth” as it’s referred to in the LGBT community, is practically impossible.

For instance, transgender workers face a catch-22 in the form of questions regarding previous names they’ve held, according to Allen. Applicants must either answer honestly and potentially reveal a birth name associated with a different gender, or shield themselves from potential discrimination with a lie, which could result in job loss if later discovered. Later steps like background checks and social security records almost ensure that transgender workers are exposed to their potential employers, at which point their fate depends upon the hiring manager’s beliefs about trans people.

The current patchwork of gender identity discrimination laws adds to the fears of trans job applicants. Employees can still be fired for their gender expression in 30 states, in which 48 percent of the overall LGBT population lives.

Currently, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) argues that transgender workers are protected under existing legislation; however, the U.S. Department of Justice disagrees. And a potential a Supreme Court decision could have far-reaching impact for transgender workers.

How your business can better include transgender employees.

More than likely, your business already has in place guidelines related to the reporting and handling of harassment and discrimination; however to be a trans friendly workplace, you should make sure that these policies also clearly denote zero tolerance for harassment based on gender expression and identity.

Further, company leadership and key executives should take measures to foster a culture of inclusion where everyone—employees, vendors, and customers—feel safe and comfortable being their authentic selves.

Other recommended policies and procedures to tackle transgender issues in the workplace:

  • Host mentoring programs that match participants across identities, like genders, races, ages, and sexual identities
  • Create an inclusive dress code that avoids gender stereotypes; enforcing it consistently.
  • Scrub internal communication for language and imagery that assumes heterosexual families and relationships as the norm

Diversity and inclusion training can help reduce biases that result in harassment and discrimination. It would be wise to invest in inclusivity training as well as unconscious bias training for your workforce, helping to root out any unintentional prejudices that might creep into day-to-day activities.

In addition, managers should be provided with workplace training to identify harassing behavior and prevent situations from escalating quickly.

Reduce gender bias in the hiring process.

HR can play a role in protecting trans applicants from an unnecessary outing, according to Susan Loynd, director of HR for Washington County Mental Health Services and expert on the Society for Human Resource Management’s Diversity and Inclusion.

“We’ve had people whose name and alias are different genders,” she told The Daily Beast. “We don’t show those records to our hiring managers—we have that all here in HR.”

Additionally, certain hiring processes can help remove the influence of unconscious bias in selecting applicants.

Establish the value of various qualifications—like years worked in an industry, education, and technical skills—before to reviewing applications and resumes. Researchers also recommend using a candidate-selection process that prioritizes identifying suitable candidates over eliminating unsuitable candidates, which reduces judgments based on stereotypes.

Communicate the availability of programs to assist transitioning.

Frequently, transgender employees will “come out” to their human resources representative or direct manager, wishing to discuss the practicalities of their transition, legal rights, potential medical challenges, and existing corporate policies. To help with managing gender transition in the workplace, you should regularly communicate to your staff the availability of any programs you have in place as well as the openness of your HR staff to discuss these matters confidentially.

Trans workers’ experience in the modern workplace is a dark reflection of the destructive power of widely-held negative beliefs. The more-than worthwhile effort required to better accommodate them, however, is a reminder of the deeply constructive power inclusion holds to make positive change.