HR plays a critical role in helping trans and gender-diverse staff to bring their true selves to work.
For the first 29 years of her life, Sally Goldner AM felt she had a question mark over her head. It was in 1995 that she decided to address that question mark, but the answers weren’t coming very easily. The library didn’t help. Her GP didn’t understand. And her psychiatrist was making her feel worse. Finally, she was put in touch with an expert in gender and sexuality.
“She didn’t make me draw a family tree diagram. She didn’t ask me about drug and alcohol use. She could just see I was stressed and needed someone who would listen,” says Goldner.
“She listened for 20 minutes and then said, ‘Okay. I can see you’re in a lot of distress. Has anyone ever described it to you like this? There’s this word: ‘transgender.’”
It was as if a light switch had been flicked on. For the next two years, Goldner changed how she presented herself to the world, moving towards living fully as her authentic, female self.
“I was occasionally presenting as female, but with family of origin, at work and with friends from the first half of my life, I was still presenting as male. I got to the point where I realised I needed to be myself.”
Some might think trans and gender-diverse persons “transition” from one gender to another, but as Pride in Diversity (a program run by ACON) director Dawn Hough points out, it’s not a transition, it’s an affirmation. Hough says the language around this has shifted.
“They’ve always been that gender; it just hasn’t matched how they presented outwardly. They are actually affirming their gender, not transitioning,” says Hough.
It should be noted Hough is a cisgender woman, and Goldner says it’s important to defer to trans or gender-diverse people first regarding what terminology they are comfortable with.
Workplaces have come a long way in the last 10 years for LGBTQI+ employees, says Hough. Though there is still some way to go, more and more workers feel they can remain with their current employer while going through the process of gender affirmation.
“Years ago, employees would have just left, affirmed their gender outside the workplace, and tried to get another job,” says Hough.
That’s the most mild outcome, says Goldner. In some instances, she says, trans or gender-diverse employees could be fired on the spot and those who stayed with their employer could be subjected to bullying, harassment or much worse.
This is where HR can provide substantial support to their employees. Acknowledging their experience and supporting them through their affirmation can produce long-term benefits to your organisation. As Goldner puts it, “if you put the investment in and support a trans person in the best possible way, you will have a very grateful and loyal employee who will give it their best and better.”
Listen to your employee needs
Both Goldner and Hough say workplaces can start creating a safe space by telegraphing their support for the LGBTQI+ community.
“We need to create an environment where employees can go to their employers and seek support. The more visible the inclusion work of an employer is in this area, the safer the employee will feel to do this,” says Hough.
For a trans or gender-diverse employee, gender affirmation is likely something they have been considering for a long time. For some, this is the part of their process where they finally become comfortable in their own skin – this will likely also improve their mental wellbeing.
If employees take the step to discuss their situation with HR or their manager, they need to be taken seriously. Goldner says the best thing employers can do is listen.
“Just sit with the person in the present moment. If someone says, ‘I think I might be trans,’ don’t rush in and say, ‘Have you got your surgery planned?’ Or something like that. Not everyone has surgery, or it might not be something they’re considering right now. Just say, ‘Wow, I really appreciate that you’ve trusted me to tell me that.’”
Here Goldner touches on a common misconception held by cisgender people; not all trans or gender-diverse people undergo surgery. While HR might want to jump into planning which kind of leave an employee needs, it’s better to let them guide the process. Employers should seek third-party training so they can provide the best support.
As with any issue involving an employee’s private life, it is important to remember not every trans or gender-diverse person will want to discuss every stage of their affirmation process with their employer. For many, it’s an entirely private moment in their lives. Each person’s experience will be different and come with its own challenges.
“You need a really good gender affirmation policy which outlines what the process would be [if someone chooses to disclose this information]. That process needs to be discussed, mapped out and planned for the person affirming their gender according to where they’re at,” says Hough.
“It’s not one-size-fits-all. And people will be at very, very different stages of affirming their gender, so it’s absolutely critical that a process is being followed.”
Hough and Goldner both recommend bringing in third-party experts from trans and gender-diverse organisations to assist with the process. Goldner suggests the Gender Centre in Sydney and Transgender Victoria as two possible options.
“Training for your team is very important,” says Hough. “We go into organisations, sit down with the team and talk about what gender affirmation means. We can answer any questions without the person being there.
“If there’s a level of discomfort within the team, we answer those questions at the training, but we also ensure we are very clear around what’s acceptable and not acceptable behaviour, and what are acceptable and non-acceptable lines of questioning, because people can get too personal. We talk about names and pronouns and bathrooms etc.”
For leaders and HR professionals who are not trans or gender-diverse, it’s important to accept outside help because they’re unlikely to have the experience to understand what the employee is going through.
Validate their experiences
For those who aren’t familiar with the LGTBQI+ community, often what’s holding them back from learning more is the fear they’ll say or do something wrong. But acknowledging the limitations of your understanding while showing you want to learn more can have a remarkable effect on putting the individual you’re speaking with at ease – and it opens up the communication lines.
You will make mistakes, says Hough, and the best way to remedy this is to ask, from the get-go, that they correct you if you do.
“There are two things to keep in mind here. Firstly, people who are affirming their gender at work understand it might take some getting used to. It’s easy to recognise the difference between mistakes and intentional misgendering,” says Hough.
“The second thing is that for the person who makes the mistakes, the best thing they can do is say ‘thank you’ when corrected and not make a huge, big fuss out of it. “If I call someone Jim instead of Jenny, I say, “Jim. Oh, sorry. Jenny,” and I make a commitment to myself to do better.”
Where it becomes an issue is when it’s intentional. If an employee is intentionally misgendering another employee HR must step in and call them out. It’s against the law to discriminate against trans and gender-diverse employees and the organisation could find itself accused of bullying and harassment if it doesn’t take steps to address the issue immediately.
Unfortunately, there may be some people who will never come around to the idea that there are genders beyond male and female.
“When it comes to somebody who might feel very uncomfortable with this, for whatever reason, it’s not about condemning them and telling them they’re wrong,” says Hough.
“It’s about saying, ‘Regardless of how you feel about this, we’re not here to change your values, we’re not here to change your beliefs, but your behaviour in the workplace absolutely has to be in accordance with our workplace values, and it has to be respectful.”
There is an organisational benefit to supporting trans and gender-diverse employees through gender affirmation. Goldner firmly believes that by supporting an employee in such a critical moment they will become more dedicated to the organisation.
“If you support someone in your workplace, you’ll have a happier, healthier, more productive and creative employee in whatever they work in.”
Goldner says becoming her authentic self helped her to explore authenticity in other parts of her life. She realised she loved working in the not-for-profit sector and now works for Transgender Victoria as a diversity educator and finance manager.
“After I got that first breakthrough in 1995, I realised because I was blocking such a big part of myself that I didn’t have a vision of myself for the future. It’s freeing not to have that anymore. I can just be me.”
Showing your support
Goldner and Hough offer some simple ways to show that your workplace supports trans and gender-diverse employees. They include:
- Recognising Trans Visibility Day on March 31.
- Adding pronouns to your email signatures.
- Organising training with trans and gender-diverse supportive organisations.
- Removing gender questions such as “male or female” from application forms or making responses more inclusive.
- Consider using language like “everyone” or “all genders” instead of “men and women” or “male and female”.
A version of this article originally appeared in the September 2020 edition of HRM magazine.
This post was updated on October 22, 2020, to closer reflect the author’s intent.
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