Navigating “Transgender" In The Workplace
Transgender. How does that word make you feel? Uncomfortable? Anxious? Cautious?
It's normal to be a little intimidated by the subject. Information on transgender people isn't always widely available, and it's not easy to navigate the topic when you're unsure of what's respectful. Couple that with the added stress of workplace professionalism, and it's even more difficult to comfortably interact with your trans coworkers.
So how do we make it easier?
When I was hired by GCommerce Solutions, nobody knew I was transgender. I eventually decided to socially transition within the company, using a different first name and more prominently displaying my preferred pronouns and gender. I was spoiled with an incredible leadership team who helped me through the process, as well as a team of coworkers that made the transition as stress-free as possible. However, I've had plenty of terrible transition experiences as well. And while we don't like to acknowledge it, negative experiences are just as important as positive ones in understanding proper respect.
The information below offers advice for supporting trans coworkers, drawing from both personal experience and conversations I've had with other trans people. This article won't touch on everything, but listening to the trans perspective provides a great entry point if you're struggling to comfortably interact with a trans coworker.
The Basics Of Language
Part of becoming comfortable with "transgender" includes familiarizing yourself with the language under that umbrella. Words can be incredibly powerful, and using the right ones can make all the difference. Here are a few common, foundational terms to remember.
"Transgender" (often shortened to "trans") refers to a person who feels in line with a different gender than the doctors and/or parents labeled them at birth.
Transgender identity is all about self-perception - the way someone feels socially, mentally, and physically. You are the only one who can determine your own gender, and respecting a trans person's self-perception is the first step in supporting them.
Until somewhat recently, these terms were nearly interchangeable with transgender/trans. However, there are some subtle implications that make them a bit outdated and often disrespectful. The details are too complex to get into here, but I encourage you to research the words if you're interested. In any case, stick to "transgender" and "trans" to safely ensure a level of respect.
"Cis" is the exact opposite of "trans." If you're cisgender, your self-perception matches what you were labeled by doctors/parents at birth.
Many people refer to cisgender as "normal," but that's a word to avoid. The opposite of normal is "abnormal" or "weird," which would paint transgender people in a negative light. The same is true for "average" and "common." These words still give off the impression that trans people are an anomaly, which has negative connotations and gives off the wrong impression.
This is a type of transgender where a person doesn't see themselves as wholly female nor wholly male. They can be neither, a bit of both, or something else entirely.
Interactions with non-binary people can be a bit more complex, but most of the tips in this article still apply. As long as you follow the underlying principles of respect, the advice is easily transferable to non-binary, trans people.
How To Support Trans Coworkers
Below are some basic things you can do to support trans coworkers, regardless of your relationship with them. Manager, team member, or just an occasional passerby, these tips can help break down the intimidation of "transgender" in the workplace.
Do some research on transgender people to better understand your trans coworker's identity and struggles. You don't have to discuss what you learn, but the new knowledge will help you empathize with your coworker and reduce the chances of shoving your foot in your mouth, making interactions with them much less daunting.
Ask About Their Preferences
While it's important not to smother your trans coworker, it can be helpful to ask questions about their preferences. Do they dislike any specific language? Is there a set of pronouns they prefer to use? Is there anything else you should keep in mind? Use your best judgment to determine an appropriate time to ask, and only bring up questions with a practical application. Though these questions are ultimately designed for your trans coworker's comfort, too many at once can be overwhelming.
Put Their Identity First
As discussed, gender is all about self-perception. Regardless of someone's appearance, anatomy, or history, it is best to treat them in a way that reflects how they see themselves.
Not every trans person fits the standard way we think about a "man" or a "woman," so this can feel a bit weird at first. But try to remember how stressful the wrong label can be, even in your own life. The discomfort when your college roommate insists you're a "party animal," even years later. The awkwardness of opening a gift based on interests you gave up as a teenager. The absolute embarrassment when a stranger assumes your sibling is a significant other. No one likes to be misread or mislabeled, so it's important to respect a trans person's self-perception.
Display Your Pronouns
You may see a trans coworker adding something like (he/him/his) or (she/her) after their name. This indicates their preferred pronouns, which is one way your trans coworker can inform others about their identity.
As a trans person, adding pronouns to your name can be a bit embarrassing. It often sticks out like a sore thumb and can draw unwanted attention. If you, a cisgender person, add pronouns to your name as well, it makes the addition seem more normal and takes focus away from your trans coworker. It also acts as a small act of solidarity, showing your support without explicitly stating it.
Correct Other Coworkers
If someone makes a mistake when your trans coworker isn't around, gently correct them with the proper language. A trans coworker takes some getting used to, and you're all learning together. You can do your part by helping those around you form respectful habits.
Make An Effort
Nobody is perfect, but it's vital you make a solid effort to respect your trans coworker's preferences. It may feel inconvenient, annoying, or even frustrating at times, but you can't give up just because things get difficult. Persistence will not go unnoticed.
Tips For Leadership
If you're in a position to influence company or department policies and processes, use it to your advantage. Many of the issues that trans people face in the workplace come from bureaucracy, so this is your chance to move some of those roadblocks.
Ask Questions About Comfort
Understanding your trans coworker's situation can make it easier to provide the right support. If a trans coworker comes to you for help, make sure to clarify exactly what this will entail within the company. Is this a public announcement, or just between you two? Is it just for your team, or the entire company? Would the trans person like to announce it, or would they be more comfortable with that info coming from leadership? If you ever need to get in touch with an emergency contact, how should you refer to your trans coworker?
Help With Bureaucratic Changes
If your trans coworker decides to transition in the middle of their employment, offer support with any public information that needs changing. For example, update their email and any company accounts with their preferred name. Let them know where a legal name may be necessary, such as their paycheck or other human resources documents. Ask if they need any other accommodations for their transition, and provide assistance wherever possible.
Apply Gendered Policies Correctly
If your company has gender-specific policies, hold your trans coworkers to the standards of their preferred gender, regardless of their legal sex.
For example, let's talk about a trans coworker who is legally considered female but prefers to be treated with male standards and language. In this case, your coworker is a man and should be treated accordingly. If female employees are required to wear skirts, then you should NOT punish this coworker for wearing pants. And if your company requires neckties for male employees, then this coworker SHOULD be punished for refusing to wear one.
Enforce Punishment For Ill Will
Most companies have a policy against discrimination or hateful comments, but they're not always enforced. If you find out that other employees are intentionally disrespecting your trans coworker, do not let the behavior go unnoticed. Enforce your policies as a show of goodwill towards your trans coworker.
Choose The Right Insurance Partner
Many insurance plans do not adequately cover trans-related medical expenses like prescriptions, surgeries, or transition-related endocrinologist visits. Not every trans person will choose to use these services, but that choice shouldn't be made by their insurance provider. Trans care is expensive, so do your due diligence and try working with a provider who will cover these expenses when needed.
If your coworker seems to be struggling at your company, provide them direction on resources that could make their work experience easier. Whether this means providing mental health benefits, making it easy to report negative experiences with other employees, or offering time off to recharge, helping them access helpful resources is a great way to support your trans coworkers.
What Not To Do
If you want to keep from disrespecting your trans coworkers, then these are things to avoid.
Asking Invasive Questions
It's understandable to be curious about a transgender person, but that doesn't mean you get to invade their privacy. Questions about anatomy, sex life, and medical history are completely inappropriate for the workplace, and a transgender coworker is not an excuse to break your professionalism. It would be best if you never asked a transgender coworker something you wouldn't ask a cisgender one.
Praising Them For Their Gender
Words like "brave" and "inspiring" may seem positive, but they have a tendency to backfire. This kind of praise often singles out your trans coworker, putting them on an unearned pedestal and making it harder for them to be taken seriously. It can also come off as patronizing or as an empty gesture to make yourself feel good. To truly support your trans coworkers, skip the platitudes and go for a more grounded approach.
Every trans person is different, so you can't assume their preferences or how they want to be treated. Listen to what they say and how they act, and parrot any language they use for themselves. Please don't speak on their behalf unless you're 100% certain what their preferences are. And if you're not sure what their preferences are, ask! Trans people are just as unique as cisgender people, so you have to treat your trans coworkers with the same care you would any other.
Dwelling On Mistakes
If you accidentally use the wrong language or otherwise make a mistake around your trans coworker, don't blow it out of proportion. Falling over yourself to correct a mistake draws unnecessary attention to the error, amplifying any discomfort and making the situation worse. Instead of dwelling on your mistakes, just quickly apologize, correct yourself, and move on as if it never happened. Slip-ups happen, but any reasonable person will forgive an honest mistake.
Expecting Them To Educate You
While many trans people are happy to share information about transgender issues and struggles, it's not their job to do so. Asking about individual preferences can be a great way to show support, but expecting your trans coworker to teach about trans people, in general, can come off as rude. If they want to share, they will. If not, it's your job to educate yourself.
Giving Them Special Treatment
If there's just one thing you should remember from this article, it's this. Trans people are just people and want to be treated as such.
You interact with men and women every day, and it's no different with trans men, trans women, or non-binary people. If you truly want to support your trans coworkers, simply hold them to the same standards of respect that you would any other coworker. Do your best to abide by their preferences, don't single them out for no reason, and overall, just treat them like a human being.
While interacting with trans coworkers can be a bit intimidating at first, it's not that scary in practice. Most of the discomfort surrounding "transgender" comes from a lack of information, which is easily solved with proper research and genuine conversation. Get to know your trans coworker as a person, and the rest will follow. Yes, hearing "transgender" in the workplace is uncomfortable. But the only way to get out of that discomfort is to walk right through.
If you're interested in learning more, check out the "Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion" section of our digital marketing blog. Or better yet, come join our team! Our "DEI Study Group" holds frequent education sessions, and the whole company is learning about coworker support together.