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Creating a Trans-Inclusive Workplace

Christian N. Thoroughgood, Katina B. Sawyer & Jennica R. Webster

02/25/2020

For most of us, work is stressful in and of itself. Imagine carrying the added emotional weight of having to deny and suppress one of the most fundamental aspects of who you are—your gender identity—because it doesn’t conform with society’s norms regarding gender expression. And imagine how it would feel if you revealed your authentic self to those you work with and see every day, only to have them reject, ostracize, or ignore you as a result. (Maybe you do not have to imagine at all.)

These issues are pervasive for many trans people, who often experience stigma and discrimination, hostility, and pressure to “manage” their identities in social settings—including the workplace—to suit the expectations of others. Such experiences can set in motion a host of psychological responses that have devastating consequences for trans individuals’ emotional well-being, job satisfaction, and inclination to remain with an employer.

Despite a growing global awareness of the struggles trans people face, many employers remain ill-equipped to create the policies and workplace cultures that would support trans employees. Part of the problem is a lack of knowledge about these challenges. Indeed, even companies that are LGBTQ+-friendly usually focus more on the “LGB” than on the “TQ+.”

The overriding reason to address this issue is that it’s simply the right thing to do. Nobody who works hard and contributes to an organization’s success should ever have to feel stigmatized and fearful of coming to work each day. But that’s not the only reason. A failure to adopt trans-specific policies and practices can cost businesses dearly in the form of higher turnover, decreased engagement and productivity, and possible litigation. Discriminatory behavior in general also hurts the company’s brand.

Fortunately, research on how employers can more effectively attract, retain, and promote the well-being and success of their trans employees is growing. Although we are not members of the trans community, we’ve spent the past seven years learning from a diverse population of trans people in the course of our research as organizational psychologists specializing in gender-related issues. We’ve interviewed and surveyed more than 1,000 trans employees from a range of industries and professions throughout North America. In this article we share their voices and experiences and outline what we’ve learned.

The Roots of Stigma and Discrimination

Why do trans individuals so often face stigma and discrimination? The answer resides in how people are socialized to understand and enact gender. A large body of scholarly research in social and developmental psychology has demonstrated that gendered behavior is learned: From a young age, boys and girls are encouraged to display stereotypically gendered behaviors and discouraged from displaying non-normative ones. Just think about the tradition of giving pink items to baby girls and blue items to baby boys. The preference for these colors has no biological roots; in fact, pink was once considered the more “masculine” color. Yet over time little boys come to prefer blue and little girls come to prefer pink; they are subtly rewarded for liking their respective colors and may even be chastised for liking the other color. Moreover, children pick up on subtle signals from their parents and important others who enforce gender stereotypes. For example, when donning female garments during dress-up, girls might be told they look pretty, while boys might be told they look silly. Children seek to fulfill gender expectations in order to secure parental and, later, peer acceptance. As we grow up, it becomes difficult to distinguish between expressions of gender we actually prefer and those we have been socially rewarded for.

As a result of this socialization, gender norms provide perhaps the most basic organizing framework by which people define themselves and others. And because they are widely shared and deeply rooted, they are extremely difficult to change. Thus trans people face a unique quandary. For example, when a trans woman—whose sex was assigned male at birth and who knows herself to be female—adopts typically female clothing and jewelry, she breaks with expectations regarding how she should define and express her gender.

Unfortunately, such situations most often mean that trans individuals are stigmatized—that is, socially devalued—providing a basis for discrimination against them. Studies suggest that the costs of that stigma and discrimination are steep. For example, a 2015 survey of 27,715 trans individuals residing in the United States revealed that a staggering 77% of those who had held a job in the year prior took active steps to avoid mistreatment at work, such as hiding their gender identity, delaying their gender transition (or living as their true selves only after work and on weekends), refraining from asking their employers to use their correct pronouns (he, she, they, ze), or quitting their jobs. Sixty-seven percent reported negative outcomes such as being fired or forced to resign, not being hired, or being denied a promotion. And nearly a quarter reported other types of mistreatment based on their gender identity or expression—for example, being required to present as the sex assigned to them at birth to keep a job, having private information about their trans identity shared without permission, or being denied access to bathrooms that align with their gender identity. Such experiences may be compounded for a trans person who holds more than one stigmatized identity—for example, a black trans woman.

A lack of trans-specific policies can lead to higher turnover and even litigation.

Research also suggests that stigma and discrimination can result in ruminative thoughts, a negative self-image, hopelessness, social isolation, and alcohol abuse or other dysfunctional coping behaviors. Such responses pave the way for even greater mental health challenges, including major depression and anxiety.

In one of our own investigations, we collected daily survey data from 105 trans employees in the United States across two workweeks. The results revealed that 47% of participants experienced at least some discriminatory behavior on a daily basis at work, such as being the target of transphobic remarks, being ignored, or being pressured to act in “traditionally gendered” ways. They reported robust increases in hypervigilance and rumination at work the day following such an experience. The extent to which they had to be “on guard” around their coworkers and try to make sense of negative events predicted their emotional exhaustion during the workday.

In another study, this one involving 165 trans employees from various industries and occupations in North America, we replicated those results and extended them to other outcomes, including diminished job satisfaction and a greater desire to quit. One trans woman, an educator, who felt deeply unsupported by the administration after she reported being harassed, told us, “Students were being removed from my class, rumors were spread about me, and it just wasn’t a great place to be working anymore.” Another trans woman, who worked in retail, recalled that her direct supervisor joked about trans individuals and that customers would tell her not to bring her “lifestyle” into the workplace. As a result, she said, “I’m constantly aware of who is around me at all times. And when I’m around other people, it makes me very unsettled.” A trans man in the business sector echoed this intense sense of distress: “Most of my stress that comes from work is related to just anxiety and worry [about interactions with coworkers], just constantly wondering about things that have happened and what might happen.”

 

Employers should be aware of the business costs of ignoring these issues. A March 2012 report by the Center for American Progress indicated that companies in the United States lose an estimated $64 billion annually as a result of having to replace employees who departed because of unfairness and discrimination; many of those individuals were members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Hostility and discrimination also increase absenteeism, undermine commitment and motivation, and decrease productivity. A recent study by the Human Rights Campaign found that employee engagement declines by as much as 30% in unfriendly work environments. Although the study focused on LGBTQ+ employees more broadly, its findings are no doubt representative of trans people’s experiences. In addition to hiding who they are at work, which LGB individuals often must do with respect to their sexual identity, trans people must hide their gender expression, including how they dress, speak, and present themselves.

Discriminatory workplaces also prevent companies from attracting and retaining top talent. When employers, whether knowingly or unknowingly, fail to address prejudicial behavior, they send a potent message about their indifference and develop an external reputation for being an unwelcoming place to work. (According to the Level Playing Field Institute, one in four people who experience unfairness in the workplace report being highly unlikely to recommend their organization to others.) Furthermore, laws relating to gender identity and expression, although still severely lacking in the aggregate, are evolving at the local, state, and federal levels—creating greater obligations for employers. Without comprehensive strategies for addressing issues around gender identity and expression, organizations risk being sued. Those legal actions can be expensive to litigate, distracting to business activities, and damaging to a company’s reputation, in addition to involving costly payouts. But it is our hope that companies will approach trans inclusivity from a moral and ethical standpoint rather than a purely economic one.

Supporting Your Trans Workforce

Organizations should not wait for the courts to determine that trans individuals are fully protected under the law. Instead they should proactively incorporate gender-identity-specific nondiscrimination policies and practices throughout their businesses. That involves two key issues: protecting and promoting the rights of people of all gender identities and expressions, and increasing employees’ understanding and acceptance of their trans colleagues. In a meta-analysis we conducted with Cheryl Maranto and Gary Adams, we found strong links between the degree to which employers enact these practices and the job attitudes, psychological well-being, and disclosure decisions of LGBTQ+ community members. In another study, focused specifically on trans employees, Enrica Ruggs and her coauthors found that the presence of trans-supportive policies was positively related to participants’ openness about their identities and their decreased experiences of discrimination at work. However, such effects are likely to occur only when leaders model these policies consistently in both words and behavior. Also, it should be noted that effective diversity and equity practices have been found to positively impact the productivity of all employees.

 

Here are four practices that we recommend employers adopt. Further resources can be found through professional associations such as the Society for Human Resource Management and nonprofit organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, Out & Equal, and the Transgender Law Center.

1. Adopt Basic Trans-Inclusive Policies

An extensive body of social psychology research suggests that human beings are highly attuned to signals regarding the value ascribed to them by others. To one degree or another, we all have a basic need to belong and a prewired, unconscious monitoring system that tracks the quality of our relationships. When we detect signs of social devaluation (apathy, disapproval, or rejection), we experience negative emotions and a loss of self-esteem. When we detect signs of social valuation (praise, affection, or admission to a desired group), just the opposite occurs. Thus inclusive policies and practices—such as those related to bathroom access, dress codes, and pronoun and name usage—send vital messages to trans employees about their value as organizational members.

Bathroom access.

Instituting gender-neutral bathrooms or encouraging trans employees to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity is one important way to signal to those employees that they are valued. Diversity trainings should educate other employees on the importance of being accepting and welcoming when they find themselves in a company bathroom with a trans coworker. One of our participants, a trans man working in business, said, “When I started using the men’s room at work, a number of men didn’t like it. An engineer, a cisgender man in his forties who didn’t work with me directly, went out of his way to make me feel safe and welcome in the men’s room, and I was extremely grateful.”

Some have suggested that allowing employees to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity will increase the risk of sexual harassment and assault against women. But a 2018 report published in Sexuality Research and Social Policysuggests that such incidents in bathrooms are rare, regardless of any gender-identity policy on bathroom usage. In fact, harassment and assault generally are most often perpetrated by straight, cisgender males against straight, cisgender females.

Dress codes.

Some organizations, including Accenture, have begun to regionally implement gender-neutral dress codes. By making explicit that all employees may select from a range of options, such as dress shirts, pantsuits, and skirt suits, companies can help destigmatize varying expressions of gender. Such policies may also aid in recruitment and retention by signaling that normativity is not expected.

Pronoun and name usage.

Another way to signal to trans employees that they are valued is to pay serious attention to their preferred names and correct pronouns. Many trans people identify on the traditional binary scale—as either male or female—and thus use he, him, and his or she, her, and hers as pronouns. Yet many others who also fall under the broad category “trans”—such as genderqueer, gender-fluid, and nonbinary individuals—use alternative pronouns, such as they, them, and theirs or ze, zir, and zem.

It’s clear from our conversations and research that the “misgendering” of trans employees, whether intentional or unintentional, is relatively common at work. A onetime slipup—such as using an incorrect pronoun for a colleague who has recently transitioned—may be considered an honest mistake. (One should apologize, move on, and make sure to get it right the next time.) Using the right pronouns and names on a regular basis can be more meaningful than one might think. When asked to reflect on courageous acts coworkers had performed in support of the rights of trans employees, many of our participants recalled instances in which a cisgender employee guided others on proper pronoun usage. A simple “Katie uses ‘she’ as a pronoun” works, as does a gentle correction: “Have you seen him?” “Yes, I saw her in the conference room.”

Employers can address this issue in several ways. First, they can keep records of employees’ chosen names and correct pronouns; this helps ensure that whenever possible, appropriate terms will be used for personnel and administrative purposes, such as directories, email addresses, and business cards. Second, encourage all employees to use name badges and email signatures that include their desired names and correct pronouns; this enables people to learn those names and pronouns and cultivates awareness of the varying gender identities that colleagues may possess. Third, take advantage of training programs, onboarding initiatives, and employee handbook content to make clear that proper pronoun usage is part of creating an environment in which all employees feel valued and respected. Goldman Sachs, for example, recently launched an internal campaign to make employees more aware of the importance of pronouns and to encourage them to proactively share their pronouns with colleagues.

 

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