2. Support Gender Transitions
Transitioning is not a single event but, rather, a process, which begins with a deeply personal decision that usually results from years of soul-searching. People weigh the positive consequences of doing so (freedom from living a “double life” and expression of one’s true self) against the negative ones (potential rejection and career ramifications). One of our study participants, a trans woman in the transportation industry, told us, “After nearly a year of soul-searching, research, therapy, support group attendance, and deep personal reflection, I ‘came out’ to my supervisor as transgender….I finished talking, paused, and waited for her reply. My heart was in my throat. I knew this meeting might forever change the way she thought of me, and that I could not un-say what had been said.”
Then the woman recounted her boss’s reaction: “After a few moments, her very first words were ‘We’re not just a team here, we’re a family, and this is your home. You have the right to be who you are and to be treated with respect and dignity. I will do everything I can to make sure your transition is as smooth and trouble-free as it can be.’ She then got busy arranging meetings with the head of the department and the head of HR.”
Someone deciding to transition chooses what that process will look like and how long it will take. A transition may involve gender-confirmation surgery (not all trans people undergo medical procedures). Some gender-fluid individuals spend their lives transitioning between and within various gender expressions, as they continually reinterpret and redefine themselves. Employers must develop a comprehensive approach to managing gender transitions-one that focuses on the employee but also on cultivating a work environment conducive to the transition process.
First, helping transitioning employees who elect medical procedures to cover costs-and making sure they have access to health care benefits that are gender-identity-specific-can reduce the stress and anxiety of coming out at work
Second, it is paramount that employees be asked what they need during their transitions and how they would like the process handled. Only by listening to and collaborating with them can employers ensure that people are not inadvertently “outed” without permission or before they’re ready.
Third, if approached by an employee, an HR manager can provide information concerning where to learn more about treatment options, organizational support groups, and other available resources and can develop strategies to help the employee manage work/life issues that may arise during the process. Including direct supervisors in such meetings, if the employee feels comfortable with this, can promote empathy and aid in crafting flexible and informed plans adapted to each individual’s unique needs. Google, Cigna, and Chevron have implemented such initiatives.
Fourth, and equally important, our research suggests that leaders and managers must proactively cultivate a supportive work environment. The period of transitioning is particularly sensitive; indeed, individuals may be ostracized or pressured by peers to suppress their identities during this time, increasing their susceptibility to depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thinking. Moreover, any trans person seeking surgery will be questioned by the surgical team about the existence of support networks, which are often required for someone who is seeking gender-confirming procedures. Thus having supportive policies and plans in place will remove one or more barriers to care for trans employees.
Authority figures who model trans-inclusive behaviors on a consistent basis are crucial to creating a supportive environment. Many of our participants said they would not have felt comfortable inquiring about transition benefits, much less been successful in their transitions, if senior leaders and frontline managers had not shown support, which tends to have a trickle-down effect on lower-level employees. Top leaders can do this in various ways, such as by attending or presenting at conferences about trans-specific issues, publicly championing gender-inclusive dress codes and bathroom usage initiatives, and using their correct names and gender pronouns.