Commentary: Out of the Shadows

Five tips on treating transgender employees with respect.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
 
How many transgender people are employed in your business? Do you know how their coworkers are treating them? Surveys show that large numbers of transgender employees report having endured harassment or discrimination, or having hidden their identity at work to avoid insults or to protect their safety. What are you doing to ensure transgender employees in your company are treated legally and fairly?  If you don’t already have visible transgender employees working in your organization, you likely will soon. With public acceptance growing, transgender people are more willing to discuss their lives publicly and to demand fair treatment at work. As with other generational shifts, successful Seattle businesses will thrive by adapting to meet the needs of this changing workforce. Regardless of how the Trump administration handles enforcement of federal civil rights laws, transgender employees in Seattle continue to be protected under state law and city ordinance. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure a safe and respectful work environment for transgender employees.
 
Plan Ahead. Educating managers and supervisors about issues faced by transgender employees will help prevent potential workplace conflict and reduce the risk of discrimination claims. Make sure managers are comfortable with basic terminology. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of gender, which may be the same as or different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender describes someone whose gender identity is different from the sex that individual was assigned at birth. Gender expression is the outward demonstration of gender identity through behavior, clothing, hairstyle, voice or other personal characteristics. Gender transition is the process by which transgender persons begin to identify and express the sex consistent with their gender identity instead of the sex they were assigned at birth. Some gender transitions involve surgery or other medical treatment; some do not. Transgender employees are legally protected regardless of whether they have had any specific medical procedure.
 
Ensure Fairness. Review company policies and practices to ensure transgender employees are covered and treated fairly. EEO and nondiscrimination policies should explicitly include gender identity and expression as protected categories. Dress codes must allow transgender employees to choose clothing consistent with their gender expression. Background and reference check procedures cannot disqualify applicants on the basis of a name or gender marker change and should use gender-neutral language whenever possible. 
 
 
Address Restrooms. Assess the comfort and privacy of restrooms at your workplace. If space allows, a single-stall, gender-neutral bathroom is a useful option for any employee who prefers additional privacy. Transgender employees, however, may not be isolated or instructed to use only certain bathrooms. If your workplace includes gender-specific facilities, transgender employees must be able to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity — without fear of insults or harassment.
 
Practice Respect. Managers and supervisors should be prepared to model respectful treatment. Require everyone to use a transgender employee’s chosen name and gender pronouns. If someone slips and uses the wrong name or pronoun, simply ask them to apologize and use the correct terms the next time. Mistakes are forgivable, but intentional or persistent misnaming or misgendering may be illegal harassment.
 
Be Proactive. Don’t wait until there is a problem or you learn of a transgender employee planning to transition. Discussing potential issues in advance allows you to assess your workplace climate and decide whether additional training is necessary to ensure respectful nondiscriminatory treatment.
 
Employers who ignore the needs of their changing workforce or turn a blind eye to disrespectful treatment of transgender employees run a significant legal risk. Successful businesses will adapt to changing societal norms by building a strong company culture that respects differences and encourages employees to appreciate and learn from coworkers’ life experiences. 
 
JENNIFER DIVINE is a partner in the Seattle office of Miller Nash Graham & Dunn LLP. Reach her at jennifer.divine@millernash.com.
 

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