How can businesses better include transgender workers?

Drawing on her own experience of transitioning while employed, Clare Fielding explains what firms can do to improve inclusion for trans colleagues

Stock Image. Credit: Tom Werner/Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

I find myself writing this on International Transgender Day of Visibility, which takes place on 31 March each year to celebrate trans and non-binary people, and raise awareness of discrimination faced by transgender people worldwide. Put it in your diary for next year. I am a trans woman and proud to be so. During my career I have spent many years as an employee in various places, including law firms and the Bank of England. Currently I am the managing partner of a specialist City law firm as well as an employer. What I am not is an HR professional, so I speak only from my own experience and not with any professional expertise.

These days you seemingly can’t turn on the news without running into the ‘trans issue’ or a debate about trans rights. This subject includes a lot of viewpoints that are often strongly held. A minefield for employers, some might say. However, I respectfully disagree. The key to getting it right is essentially quite simple.

Before we delve into how businesses could better include transgender workers, let’s first talk about why they should want to. The answer to this question is simply that it is the right thing to do. Everyone in the workplace should be entitled to bring their whole selves to work, be treated with respect, and to feel included in the culture of the organisation. If trans people for some reason are excluded in a workplace, I suspect there is a good chance that others will feel the same way. In this age of social media and open debate, one has to wish those employers that ignore these topics luck in retaining their staff and their reputation.

Although the business world has stepped up its commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace, there is still some way to go in fostering a truly inclusive environment for many – this includes transgender employees.

People sometimes struggle to engage with trans co-workers for fear of not having the right vocabulary or causing offence by getting the words they use wrong. In my opinion, there is no such thing as the ‘right’ vocabulary. It is important for employers to treat trans colleagues as individuals, entitled to the same respect and dignity as anyone else in the company would be. This means not agonising about what words to use or not use, but rather asking any trans colleagues what they are comfortable with. Different individuals may give different answers. There is no ‘one size fits all’. With my own transition years ago while I was at the Bank of England, the security guards affectionately referred to me as ‘the new lady of Threadneedle Street', which I absolutely loved; it showed their protectiveness and how they always looked after me with incredible courtesy and respect. 

To be more inclusive and supportive, employers also need to understand the barriers that transgender people have to surmount. Looking back at my own transition, it strikes me that the hardest thing about it was not necessarily the change of gender as such, but rather the change of identity. I am convinced that no-one really cared what gender I was. The tricky part for my colleagues was to adjust to knowing me as a different person, with a different name and different pronouns. In the same way, I found it hard to adjust to it. My new identity was something I had to grow into over time and I feel my colleagues came on that journey with me.

It boils down to culture for businesses to better advance and include transgender workers and make them feel that they belong and are fully accepted by their employers and peers. There needs to be zero tolerance of discrimination against transgender people (or anyone else) and robust, disciplinary means of dealing with it in the event that it should occur. The minimum requirement for employers should be to protect the rights of people of all gender identities. Employers also need to think about exclusionary cultures and any more subtle forms of discrimination and exclusion that can go on in the workplace.

Trans-inclusive policies are a good way to set the playing field. These help to signal a workplace as one that is trans-inclusive; however, policies on their own cannot be the full picture. Having policies but not implementing the inclusion of trans people into the work culture is a question of deeds not words.

My top five tips for employers to include and support transgender employees would be: 

  • Have trans-inclusive policies;

  • Demystify trans issues by having a trans consultant or speaker come and share their experiences;

  • Provide gender-neutral bathroom options for those who want to use them. People who identify as non-binary don’t always feel comfortable using either the men’s or women’s facilities;

  • If people want to specify their pronouns on email signatures, for example, let them, but never insist that they do so;

  • If there is someone in your workplace transitioning, be supportive by talking to them and identifying their needs. Also find out whether their colleagues need support or training in handling the situation. 

When people feel totally authentic in themselves and included in their organisations, they can achieve their full potential. Transgender employees are no exception.

Clare Fielding is a partner at Town Legal and member of Freehold, a networking forum for LGBTQ+ professionals in real estate