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Op-ed: Bosses Need to Step Up for Their Trans Employees

Op-ed: Bosses Need to Step Up for Their Trans Employees


Transgender visibility is on the rise, but most trans people are still unprotected against workplace discrimination.

When Apple CEO Tim Cook came out and made a public statement that he is "proud to be gay," it marked a major moment for the LGBT community. As an executive of one of the top tech companies in the world, he metaphorically planted a flag on the mountaintop for equal rights and diversity in the workplace. However, despite this announcement, there is still no federal law directly protecting LGBT people against job discrimination, and many employees are still at risk of losing their employment if they decide to reveal their sexual orientation or transgender status.

Unfortunately, there are far fewer workplace examples like Tim Cook for transgender people, and many employees who are understanding their gender identity or transitioning face intense confusion and discrimination from their colleagues. While Laverne Cox, the star from Orange Is the New Black, writer and advocate Janet Mock, and Lauren Scott, the former Republican nominee in Nevada's 30th Assembly District, are bringing issues of gender identity to the national consciousness, there is still a tremendous amount of work needed to increase cultural competency and social equity.

In most states, an employee can be terminated based on their actual or percieved gender identity. Progress is being made, but only 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed specific laws against discrimination on the basis gender identity or expression. The workplace can be a very closeted and lonely experience. This is why the responsibility to improve social equity in the workplace needs to be placed on administrators and managers.

As a professor at University of San Francisco's School of Management, my goal is to provide a voice to marginalized communities by creating a generation of administrators, managers, and leaders who are culturally competent and aware of complex issues of identity and how that relates to the workplace. My research explores the roles managers and public administrators play in social equity, and what I see, more and more, is that a productive work environment embraces diversity and allows individual employees to feel comfortable in their roles. This directly impacts a company's bottom line, especially when working with clients who are diverse, and creates a more engaged workplace.

In the past few decades, there have been several high-profile and unacceptable terminations of transgender employees. For example, an egregious violation of basic human rights occurred in 2007, when Susan Stanton, the city manager of Largo, Fla., was terminated after disclosing plans to undergo gender-affirming surgery. Stanton, who had been presenting as male until then, was married to a woman and had children. She struggled with gender dysphoria, and the decision put her life at risk. After she decided at the age of 48 to stop the personal horror of having to present as male, her marriage ended, and she lost the support of her workplace.

That same year, professor Julie Nemecek was another victim of unfair employment discrimination based on gender identity. Nemecek, a tenured faculty member at Spring Arbor University in Michigan, was fired because of her decision to transition. She was a renowned scholar in her field and had a great reputation as an administrator and teacher. She started wearing makeup to meetings and what is conventionally considered women's clothing. Ultimately, she lost the support of her employer.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that firing someone on the basis of their gender identity violates federal policies in the 2012 case Macy v. Department of Justice. Earlier this year, the EEOC filed a complaint on behalf of a transgender employee who says she was discriminated against at work because of their gender identity. One woman was fired by Lakeland Eye Clinic in Florida after she began to present as a woman at work and told her superiors that she now identifies as transgender.

This type of gender discrimination is a major problem in workplaces across the country. Besides direct abuses to human equality, organizations that have inadequate diversity initiatives are likely to experience problems with employee relations, employee attitudes, increased employee turnover, and lower employee retention, as noted in a 2005 study. So how can managers create a more inclusive environment for transgender people?

Around the nation, there are several courses and training programs managers can take to understand issues relating to the LGBT community. For example, the Human Rights Campaign has made transgender rights a central priority, and it issued a report aimed at assisting and training managers. The report asks workplaces to adopt nondiscrimination policies for transgender employees, even if the federal government won't institute the same policies. This action can provide an immediate impact, because it will set the tone for the rest of the employees, stating that intolerance will not be tolerated, while providing protection for employees who request reasonable accommodations, including access to gender-segregated facilities like restrooms and locker rooms.

It's important that managers and public administrators take a much more proactive course in becoming culturally competent regarding transgender concerns. In the past, it has often been the disenfranchised who have been the educators in the face of ignorance. For example, African-Americans have usually been the ones educating other colleagues about life as an African-American. So my biggest advice to managers is to not wait to encounter transgender people in your workplace in order to become culturally competent. Becoming educated on how other individuals live should not only be standard procedure for a manager, but it should also be a foundational goal for achieving a successful and productive work environment.

While equality in the workplace is still an uphill climb for transgender people and the entire LGBT community, managers and public administrators shouldn't wait for a firmer stance from the federal government. From a local perspective, leadership in the workplace can create a more inclusive environment through education and setting the standards up front that discrimination in terms of gender identity is not acceptable. It's clear that more states may pass laws protecting transgender people, but they will not move fast enough for those individuals who are forced to lead double lives to keep their jobs, and the leadership must start with a commitment to end bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance from a managerial point of view.

RICHARD GREGGORY JOHNSON is a professor in the University of San Francisco's public administration program.

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Richard Greggory Johnson