Last Wednesday I gave a talk to a local ACAS Equality and Diversity Forum about the challenges of being trans, and particularly non-binary, in the workplace. Here are my top tips to help employers make their trans staff and customers feel safer, happier and more productive.
Too long to read? Download a quick 10 tips poster in printable format here:
1. Cultural Competence takes work
When at most 1 in 200 people are trans, it’s understandable we are not well understood. Increased visibility is in some ways making this worse, as misinformation is being shared widely in the media. People tend to think they know more than they do. In fact, gender identity is such a complex subject even trans people like myself have to study hard to become competent to talk about the diversity of our community. A lot of listening is required, and a lot of challenging assumptions, complacency, and the unconscious biases we grow up with around gender.
Some people worry about “walking on eggshells” around trans people. One way to avoid this is for trans people to never correct mistakes and to just smile when people get things wrong. Another perhaps better way is for people, including trans people from different groups and communities, to educate themselves and learn to listen.
Recommendation 1: Trans people are different and have different needs, which require learning. Treating people all the same is not enough (see picture for what that looks like).
Go to credible trans sources for information – not the media, not just the trans person you happen to know, and not LGBT organisations (e.g. Stonewall) who may not have yet become culturally competent on trans issues themselves. see the resources section of this website for some ideas.
2. Language matters
Language tells a story about how the world is – the wrong language can be powerfully misleading. The most common misuse of language with trans people is the idea that we change from one thing to another – “sex change”, “used to be a man”, “born a girl”, and other common phrases used in the media tell a story of ordinary people “changing themselves”. Although we have not all known forever just exactly who we are, for most trans people the experience of being and feeling different is lifelong, and any process of transition we go through is more about becoming visible as ourselves than it is about changing from one thing to another. For non-binary people, transition can be complicated and not have a clear end “goal”, but our experiences and how we express ourselves are just as valid and authentic.
Recommendation 2: Treat a trans person as if they’ve just revealed their secret identity, and that’s who they always were. Even when you talk about them in the past, they were that person, you just didn’t know. Stick to the right names, gendered words and pronouns all the time.
3. Does everything really need to be gendered?
It’s worth checking in with the findings of the recent parliamentary Transgender Equality Inquiry to understand the challenges trans people face, particularly non-binary people. One recommendation of the enquiry is that we don’t actually need to enshrine gender in law the way we currently do. We don’t enshrine other differences, such as race or other physical features, into a legal identity, and we don’t have to put those differences endlessly onto forms. Yet we can still protect people on the grounds of those differences.
What if we just ditched the M or F, the Mr, Mrs, Miss, and treated people as people? This helps make for a less sexist workplace, too.
Recommendation 3: Review all the ways you record gender and all the gendered practices of your organisation. Ask yourself critical questions about why they are needed. Write the answers down. Do they bear scrutiny? Clothing rules and uniforms that are gendered can be difficult not just for trans people. Do we really use titles enough these days to need to include them on job application forms? Monitoring gender and gender identity are, of course, fully legal and highly recommended, see the Scottish Transgender Alliance guidelines.
4. Misgendering Matters
Misgendering happens in lots of ways. From telling a trans man he is a “mother” to asking a trans woman not to use women’s toilets, they are subtle and unsubtle ways of reminding a trans person they do not fit someone’s idea of what a man or woman should be. It’s even harder for non-binary people who don’t want to be gendered, but just as important to get right. Most misgendering is accidental rather than malicious, and comes in the form of slip-ups about names and pronouns. What’s important to understand is that even though no harm was meant, these incidents can be deeply hurtful and humiliating for a trans person. For a start, they happen a lot, so they have that drip, drip, drip effect, and for second, they remind the trans person constantly that the world really struggles to adjust to and accommodate the reality of trans identities.
Recommendation 4: Take misgendering seriously and realise the pain it causes. If you do it accidentally, apologise and move on. If it happens maliciously, treat it as the transphobia it is. And understand that trans people try to be easygoing about this stuff, but sometimes when it’s happened for the 1000th time, we snap. We don’t mean to. Please be kind and let it go if we do.
5. Don’t assume it’s going to be a problem
I was once asked in an interview how my clients deal with me being transgender. It has actually never been an issue, let alone a problem, with any of my clients, but clearly my interviewer was anticipating some difficult reaction – this in itself was a highly stigmatising experience for me.
Recommendation 5: Don’t anticipate problems, and set an accepting, congratulatory tone (rather than worried/shamed) to model a positive response. If a customer or colleague does have a problem, don’t centre their needs and prejudices.
6: Work Can be a sanctuary
Transition can sometimes throw families and relationships into turmoil. Trans people face higher levels of domestic abuse, estrangement, lack of acceptance and relationship break down. They also face problems with hate crime and abuse in their communities. Their workplace can be an oasis during this time. Or if not handled well, it can just be another place where they feel like a problem and not fully accepted.
Recommendation 6: Commit to being supportive, kind and understanding. Regular meet-ups to check in and an open door policy work wonders. Appreciate the mental health impact of being trans. Understand the employee may be openly trans at work but not at home, and allow them the facilities, such as space to get changed, to allow them to do this.
7: We are not all about surgery
Trans people, whether binary or non-binary, sometimes have surgeries, and sometimes don’t. Sometimes we take hormones, and sometimes not. There are lots of different surgeries and treatments. Sometimes we have them to feel more comfortable with our bodies, and sometimes we have them to be more socially accepted. Sometimes it’s a bit of both. What’s important to know is that surgery and hormonal treatment does not make us who we are.
If we are prescribed treatment on the NHS, it should also be understood that qualified doctors have decided that treatment is in our best interests and may well save our lives.
Recommendation 7: Treat all medical leave in the same way you would if an employee was being treated for cancer. Do not assume what treatment, if any, they will have. Do not wait until they’ve had treatment to consider them fully as who they say they are. And hopefully it goes without saying, never talk about a person’s genitals, they’re called private parts for a reason.
8: There are trans people already here, you just don’t know it
You can’t always tell someone is trans just by looking at them. Many trans people make a decision not to transition, or live lives where they are out as trans in some parts of life, but not at work. Many transitioned trans people live quietly as themselves without anyone knowing they have a trans history.
Recommendation 8: Make sure you have policy in place for trans people – they should be explicitly mentioned in E&D policies, and you should follow best practice guidelines such as these, released by the government. You also need a protocol ready for when a staff member comes out. Such a policy should take you through things like putting regular support in place, how and to whom any change will be communicated, name change, legal requirements, and eliminating their previous identity fully from documents and IT systems. Also have a best practice policy for trans customers/clients – for instance, not gendering people over the phone by voice alone, and not using sir/madam or other gendered greeting words unless you know how a person identifies themself. This makes for a trans-positive environment for customers and workers.
9: Understand the challenges trans people face in the workplace
Total Jobs recently did a survey that came up with some alarming findings about how things are for trans employees. It also highlighted particular difficulties for non-binary employees.
Recommendation 9: Digest and reflect on the survey findings, and ask how your organisation can learn from them. Be aware of the kinds of subtle micro-aggressions trans employees might face that can easily be dismissed as harmless or irrelevant, but may add up to a pattern of bullying and marginalising.
10. Celebrate Diversity
Stonewall says “We know that people perform better when they can be themselves”. What better way to signal that a workplace allows people to be themselves than one that is trans-positive? Happy, content trans employees are an asset. They signal: It’s ok to be ourselves here; We are a forward thinking organisation; We want to get the best out of people; We value difference and diversity; We are a kind employer and a comfortable workplace; We think outside the box.
Recommendation 10: Be celebratory of difference, let everyone know it as an asset that will make your organisation stronger.