It’s time to take transgender awareness seriously

Don’t wait for an employee to transition, says Sharon Broughton – every business should be considering the policies and training they need to support their staff

Next year will see the tenth anniversary of the Equality Act 2010. The Act made it law that every private, public and voluntary sector organisation must not discriminate against employees and service users because of particular characteristics such as race, age and disability, among others.

Transgender awareness and gender reassignment were included in the original Equality Act, but it wasn’t until recently that they became more widely discussed. The LGBT community has become more mainstream and attitudes in society have become more tolerant. However, there is still a long way to go. Research by Stonewall in 2017 showed that two in five LGBT people had experienced a hate crime in the previous 12 months, and four in five anti-LGBT hate crimes still go unreported.

As an HR professional, now is the time to consider how your LGBT employees are treated in your company. Have any of them experienced bullying? Would they feel confident to report any bullying? Do they feel comfortable being open about their sexual orientation? 

Transgender awareness is the area HR should be focusing on right now, in preparation for a future that’s already here. A momentous court case about gender reassignment took place in 2017, when retail assistant Alexandra de Souza E Souza took retail giant Primark to court when she was constructively dismissed from her position after being harassed for being transgender. Primark was asked to pay Miss de Souza e Souza damages just short of £48,000. Crucially, the employment tribunal made recommendations to Primark to implement a specific policy around transgender staff, to provide training for all employees about transgender issues and to ensure transgender discrimination is part of all equality and harassment policies. 

These are excellent recommendations that not only Primark but every employer should take note of. Your HR policies – not just the obvious ones, but also those on recruitment, for example – need to include transgender awareness and, if they don’t, make that change now, even if you currently have no transgender employees in your workforce. Your staff might interview a transgender applicant, for example, and they must be aware that the applicant is not required to tell a prospective employer they have changed gender. In the case of an applicant who is transitioning, your employees need to know that certain questions can’t be asked, such as whether or not the applicant has a gender recognition certificate. 

It’s vital to provide staff with diversity and inclusion training. Make sure there is an element of transgender awareness, where terminology is explained, and where it’s made clear that the individual in question indicates how they would like to be addressed and referred to. 

If you have a transgender employee in your workforce who has indicated that they will be transitioning, I recommend HR set up a ‘transgender and equality action plan’ in advance. Start by communicating with the employee and stay in continuous dialogue, always being aware of confidentiality. Make sure you choose the best approach for that person. How would they like you to communicate with the rest of the staff?  How would they like to be addressed when the transition is complete? What terminology are they comfortable with? And don’t forget about the practical side of things either, such as a person’s staff pass, company photos, business cards and online profile.

When someone is undergoing gender reassignment, they might be absent from work for some time. It’s important to treat this absence as any other work absence. In fact, it is discriminatory to treat an employee who is absent from work to undergo gender reassignment less favourably than someone who is absent for another reason.

Finally, it’s vital that these recommended changes are made with the commitment of senior management. Equal treatment needs to be demonstrated as a core business value to have true impact on the company culture. This is crucial not only for the current but also for the future workforce, who will take note of your diversity and inclusion policies when deciding whether or not they would like to work for your organisation.

Sharon Broughton is head of HR and legal commercial services at Make Business, the subscription service of Make UK (formerly EEF)