Transgender Employees: Risk or Opportunity?
My trans man counselee’s anger and disappointment were palpable, even over the phone, as he relayed his conversation with his company’s head of HR. The company was considering firing him because of his gender identity. ‘She asked me why I couldn’t grasp that being open about my gender transition process would pose a serious risk to the company.’
My counselee is a successful computer engineer who had been working for one of Turkey’s leading digital marketing firms for four months. He made the company aware of his gender identity during the hiring process, but once he had advanced in his transition and began taking hormones under a doctor’s supervision, the company decided that his transition would jeopardize the efficacy of his highly critical position.
‘I don’t understand’ he said. ‘They found me and offered me the job. I didn’t even apply for the position, and I was open about my gender identity during the interview with HR and my supervisor.’
This situation is not unique to Turkey. For many companies, being liberal, flexible, and open to any gender does not always mean that the company is aware of every aspect of gender and gender equality. To stay ahead of the curve, companies need to constantly and systemically update themselves on gender-related issues and adjust their workplaces to meet the needs of all employees.
What is unique in this example is how differently the company and the employee interpreted the gender transition process. For the employee, the process was the opportunity to become the person he believed he was meant to be, eventually leading to a happier person and potentially a more productive employee. For the company, the process would make everything ‘unpredictable,’ which it found unacceptable. The employee was taking hormones that could affect his psychology and possibly his work performance. On top of that, there was no ‘replacement’ for the employee in case something ‘happened to him’during this period.
This example shows that private companies still have a long way to go in understanding their transgender employees’ rights and needs. Transgender transition periods are not long illnesses or unnecessary days off, but periods of time requiring privacy and respect, as well as a supportive community and self empowerment, that are protected by national and international laws. For example, the UK Equality Act 2010 outlaws discrimination in employment and vocational training on the grounds of gender reassignment. The act’s protections apply to ‘people proposing to undergo, are undergoing, or have undergone a process or part of a process to reassign their sex by changing their physiological or other attributes of their gender’. From a legal and ethical perspective, therefore, companies are bound to meet the demands of their transgender employees to uphold a discrimination-free and gender-equal workplace.
As much research proves (see McKinsey, World Economic Forum and Sodexo), gender equality in the workplace improves companies’ effectiveness. Imagine that the company in the above example was well informed about the transgender transition process and its potential effects on their employee. If they were, the company would adjust the workplace to meet the employee’s needs rather than lose a vital talent and have to search, hire, and train a replacement. Retaining talent would ultimately improve the project and the company as a whole.
Adjusting the workplace to meet the basic rights and needs of transgender employees means not only submitting to legal standards but also improving the capacity of human resources departments. To help ensure that transgender employees are informed of their rights and that the company is capable of creating an enabling environment, companies can use these ten critical questions to begin evaluating their capacity:
- What are transgender employees’ rights?
- Do they have the right to use the restroom of the gender they identify with?
- Do they have the right to be called by their preferred name, even if they have not had a legal name change?
- Do they have the right to be addressed by their preferred pronoun?
- What should the company do if there is a dress code?
- What should the company do if there are sex-segregated job duties?
- What rights do transgender employees have when they are transitioning on the job?
- Do transgender employees have to answer questions about their bodies, e.g., whether they are having surgery or not?
- Can transgender employees take medical leave to have surgery during their transition?
- Do they have to disclose their transgender status on the job application?
We at Genderscope provide in-depth and bespoke trainings on the legal, policy, and organisational culture dimensions of transgender rights in the workplace. Do not hesitate to reach us.
* Sinem Hun is a Human Rights Lawyer and the Co-Director of Genderscope.