What are you doing to support transgender employees?

Transgender people are consistently marginalised at work, and in the labour market. It’s HR's job to put things right

What are you doing to support transgender employees?

“There are going to be some big changes in my life that I would like to share with you.” So began an email Samantha West (pictured far right) never believed she would have the courage to write, let alone send. Addressed to 400 colleagues at facilities management business Vinci, where she had spent 29 years working her way up to sector commercial director, it shared with the business an intimate aspect of her identity only a few people were aware of.

A doctor, said West, “has confirmed something I have recognised in myself for many years… that I identify myself as a woman. I tried to repress my true gender and as a consequence, I have suffered from gender dysphoria. Most of you will have heard of people in my situation being described as transgender. 

“Over the last 12 months I have reached a decision that I was no longer able to remain as a male. I have been through a difficult process with family and close friends and have been undergoing various treatments to enable me to become my true self.”

Looking back on the events of last year, when that email went out, West can reflect on the “freedom” it kick-started. “People had no idea. I gave nobody any clues, so they were surprised,” she says. She had first revealed her transgender (trans) identity to a small group of managers at an external event and they had embraced it to the extent they asked her to come back the next day dressed as Samantha. 

But with gender reassignment surgery approaching and her home life and work life now effectively being lived as two different people, it was inevitable her colleagues had to know. She ended the message with a photo of herself as Samantha: “It made people think ‘Oh OK, she looks quite normal. I can get my head round that.’” 

Today, she says, she visits facilities management projects up and down the country and is always warmly received: “I feel like a bit of a celebrity.” 

A story like West’s may seem relatively unusual, but the statistics surrounding transgender status in the UK suggest it isn’t. Most estimates put the proportion of trans people – in essence, those who identify as a different gender to the one they were assigned at birth – at around 
1 per cent or slightly higher. 

That is enough to ensure there is a reasonable chance even a smaller business has a trans employee, while most large businesses may have hundreds. Trans in its broader sense is a spectrum. It includes those who have transitioned through a range of medical interventions, backed by counselling, which may cost a six figure sum. But it also includes ‘nonbinary’ individuals who may not identify with a particular gender. 

HR professionals will recognise ‘trans’ as the T in LGBT, as well as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. And it is not unrealistic to suggest most will be predisposed to support and help trans people, in theory at least, should they step forward in an organisation.

But trans individuals are less ‘familiar’ than other LGBT people which, in turn, means some colleagues are less likely to understand them or feel comfortable around them. 

This can manifest itself as an awkwardness most trans people have learned to accommodate. But it can also lead to something much darker: multiple barriers to recruiting, progressing and accepting trans people in the workplace, which in some instances can mean they are treated as second-class employees, as well as suffering microagressions, bullying and harassment in the more extreme cases. 

Life can be dangerous for trans individuals; a 2018 Stonewall survey found 41 per cent had experienced a hate crime or incident linked to their gender identity in the past 12 months. 

The more civilised confines of work are generally safer, though Simon Croft (pictured centre right), lead for professional services at training and consultancy organisation Gendered Intelligence, says he still hears reports of bullying through ‘deliberate misgendering or misnaming’ and occasional physical attacks, particularly in women’s toilets. “By and large, trans people are in a vulnerable position and rather than fight their corner, they will walk away from an organisation,” he says.

The bigger problem is discrimination, which leads to trans people either failing to identify or simply remaining outside the jobs market. A 2016 Totaljobs survey of 435 transgender employees found 53 per cent had felt the need to hide their status from colleagues. Six in 10 had experienced some form of transphobic discrimination, which was almost as likely to originate from managers or recruiters as from colleagues. And a separate survey found one in three employers would entirely rule out hiring a transgender person.

These issues are being brought into sharp focus by a consultation over the Gender Recognition Act, which could open the way for individuals to ‘self-declare’ their gender, rather than requiring medical certification. This has led a small number of radical feminists to vocally protest that men would theoretically be able to access women-only spaces and services, which has increased anti-trans hostility in some areas but led, too, to a more open discussion about gender identity. It is a complex area but much opposition to self-declaration overlooks the fact that men would still have to demonstrate they intend to transition in order to access a single sex space.

“If people are reading a lot of online media at the moment, it’s unsurprising they’re getting mixed and sometimes misleading messages,” says Croft, but he adds: “Sometimes that translates into hostility, but our experience is that most people are decent and want to be kind.”

Trans issues are being increasingly politicised, but most HR professionals will first come across the topic when an employee announces they are preparing to transition. That news might be delivered directly to the HR team, in which case it is vital to at least have a working knowledge of any trans inclusion policy. But if a manager is the first port of call, it’s essential they have the right attitude, backed by access to support and information.

“I call it an organisational moment of truth,” says Emma Cusdin (pictured far left), people lead at Aviva and co-director of Global Butterflies, a consultancy specialising in trans inclusion in the workplace. “If an employee shares something that big and personal, how do you deal with it? 

“That manager encompasses the whole organisation in that moment. It’s about not judging that person’s journey and trying to understand the other things that might be going on in their life – they might be separating from a partner, they might have children.”

The manager must be prepared both for those tricky initial discussions and to be a central part of the transition team. Because while the process could be over in months, transitioning could take years, says Rachel Reese (pictured centre left), Global Butterflies’ co-director. “We tell people to be very clear around timelines and who’s going to do what. It should be the employee who owns it and sets the pace, and it’s up to the organisation to respond. That might be thinking about the consultations, surgery and whether someone can work at home while they’re having hair removal treatments. But it’s not all medical – they might need psychological support.”

There are plenty of practical considerations here, from whether to treat a transition as a single incident of sick leave, as many businesses do, through to changing name badges and email addresses when appropriate, ensuring old HR records have been amended and recording gender accurately in documentation. But even more important is how and when to communicate with colleagues and clients, something the HR team must help the employee deliver according to their wishes.

The importance of communication should not be underestimated, says Reese, who points out that even well-prepared businesses can be caught out if they have failed to tell security staff, receptionists or others outside the immediate team, about a trans employee: “A security guard often sees a visibly trans person and asks about their pronouns at the top of their voice, causing a meltdown in reception.”

Dress codes also need attention, says Croft. “People might say their dress code is casual and it’s fine to wear high heels. But do they expect everyone in heels to be a woman? Some dress codes in City firms are so rigid and gendered it’s scary. You need to have a conversation about who is affected by that and why.” 

This isn’t just about trans people, he says – any woman who presents herself in a masculine way (or, indeed, any individual who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes) may find her progression limited.

Toilets are often the ‘crunch point’ around trans employees, says Reese,  “because trans people, surprisingly, need to go to the toilet too.” This doesn’t need to be difficult, she adds: “You just need to give any employee the choice of where they go to the toilet. Put in a gender neutral facility for everyone. If you have multiple bathrooms on multiple levels, just make some of them gender neutral.”

The job of watching for instances of harassment, whether small micro-aggressions or outright hostility, is something Reese warns “never ends” and requires constant vigilance on the part of managers. Even casual conversations can constitute bullying if they escalate – particularly if a ‘stealth’ trans person unwittingly overhears.

The implications for organisations of failing in this area, aside from losing talent and sending a negative message on inclusion, are expensive. Earlier this year, Primark had to pay a former retail assistant £47,000 after she was told she had “a man’s voice” and colleagues said they would pray for her as they regarded her trans status as “evil”. The business was guilty of gender reassignment discrimination, a London employment tribunal found.

But there is also a significant upside. “Employers need to develop their understanding of the complexity and fluidity of gender identity and the limitation of binary categorisation when creating inclusive cultures,” points out Claire McCartney, diversity and inclusion adviser at the CIPD. “Doing so will help them to future- proof employment policies and practices, and develop better ways of working to improve and sustain business performance and talent management.”

A business doesn’t have to wait for a transitioning employee to change its environment. Trans awareness training embeds the right mentality and gets difficult questions answered before the issue becomes live. Even small changes can help: adopting and publicising a trans inclusion policy, inviting trans speakers to LGBT groups, supporting trans charities. 

It may be, says Cusdin, that when you talk about trans issues, you have trans employees you didn’t know about: “Sometimes people are just waiting for signals to say it’s OK to talk about it. Build it and they will come.”

Inclusion also sends a strong message to potential candidates. And given the bravery and resilience many trans people have to show in their everyday lives, they often make exemplary employees. Yet successive studies have shown it is consistently difficult for trans people to find jobs; the UK’s transgender unemployment rate is estimated to be 15 per cent, three times the rate for the population as a whole. In Ireland, it is 50 per cent, according to estimates.

What’s holding trans people back in the recruitment market is more than just unconscious bias; it’s a niggling sense that putting forward a trans candidate will lead to difficult conversations and adjustments, and may be anathema to the idea of cultural fit. Yet most recruiters would deny there is a problem.

“I like to look people in the eye and ask ‘would you hire me?’” says Joanne Lockwood, a transgender diversity consultant and founder of SEE Change Happen. “The easy answer is ‘of course, we’re an inclusive company.’ So would you put me in front of your customers? Would you let me drive a bus or close a £1m deal? Suddenly people get nervous. And that’s where I flip it round and ask whether I would want to work for you.

“Recruiters have buzzwords about diversity and inclusion. But out of the last 10 candidates you placed, how many were LGB, BME or trans? You normally find the white guy ended up getting the job, no matter whether there is a diverse shortlist.”

Because AI-enabled tools mean much CV sifting is done without even a phone conversation, she adds, recruiters may be unaware a candidate is trans until they turn up in reception: “People get three feet away and their face changes. I’ve seen eyes roll, I’ve had the conversation dry up suddenly.”

Part of the answer, Cusdin adds, is for employers to demand more from agencies, and for hiring managers to be more aware of all their biases. There are agencies such as Vercida, which actively source diverse candidates, but the industry often only pays lip service to the topic.

If nothing else, it is a situation that may improve over time, with the younger generation more open and more gender fluid. “Millennials have created a way for people to be themselves,” says Lockwood. “It’s OK to press pause and say you’re not sure about your sexuality or your gender. Eventually, the prejudice people feel about transgender men and women will disappear.”

Or, as Reese puts it: “You can talk a lot about trans identity, but ultimately all anyone wants is to come to work, be respected and be judged on their skills. Judge us as good and bad, like you do everyone else. But don’t make it about our trans status.”