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How to Build a Transgender-Friendly Workplace

How to Build a Transgender-Friendly Workplace

We don't have to wait until federal employment protections for trans people; positive changes can happen now.

Last month, transgender rights endured a setback as a federal judge issued an injunction blocking an Obama administration recommendation that public schools allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice. Legislation focusing on transgender individuals has drawn a lot of attention lately, not just for public spaces but more private ones as well. This is especially true in the workplace, where companies need to make sure they are in compliance with shifting regulations, as well as ensuring a safe environment for all employees.

While current federal regulations require companies to provide bathroom access for all employees, transgender employees can still face discrimination and feel unsafe. They can also legally be fired in more than two dozen states, just for being who they are.

Several companies have created welcoming workplaces for their transgender employees and customers. While many of the companies that get the most attention are large corporations, transgender individuals are just as likely to work for small and midsize businesses. Luckily, there are a few simple things all companies can do to counter discrimination and help ensure that their workplace is an inclusive, welcoming place.

Building the Right Culture
One of the most important things an employer can do to make a workplace welcoming to all employees is to build the right culture. This can start from leading by example. Simply put, if an executive, founder, or other company leader advocates and promotes an environment that is inclusive and supportive of transgender workers, other employees are more likely to follow suit. Make sure your employee handbook has a clear policy that prohibits bullying, harassment, and discrimination of any kind. If not, you might consider contacting your human resources team to have them address this. It is important for employers to require that every employee read and agree to the handbook so they know what's expected of them.

Building the right company culture can also include measures such as sensitivity training. A recent university study has shown that being proactive in educating people on the experiences of transgender individuals increases acceptance.

Protecting Privacy and Health Information
However an organization chooses to support its transgender employees, it's imperative that they respect their privacy. Like any other private health, life, or employment matter, the birth gender and transition of an employee should be handled with the utmost discretion. Information about either should not be released without written permission from the employee and only for lawful purposes that relate to the individual's employment.

Allowing for Freedom of Appearance
Beyond standard dress codes, every person should feel free to dress according to the gender with which they identify. Any company dress code should be applicable to all employees -- no matter their gender -- and should not be contingent upon gender-identified stereotypes. For instance, requirements of females to wear skirts or dresses and high heels while allowing males to wear flat shoes and pants can get a company into hot water.

Respecting Names and Pronouns
A good practice is for employers to ask all employees, as part of the hiring process, what they prefer to be called. This will allow transgender (as well as other) employees to be called by their preferred name. Legal names for purposes of compliance with the IRS, Department of Homeland Security, drug testing, and insurance enrollment -- to name a few -- must be based on the documentation the employee presents at the time of hire or after going through the appropriate legal process to change his or her name. For the purposes of workplace interaction, however, make it clear that employees should be addressed by the name that conforms to their gender identity and that pronouns used to refer to that person should be in keeping with that same identity.

Transgender Acceptance Is Great for Business
Building a transgender-friendly workplace can help your business succeed. An accepting, all-inclusive work environment undoubtedly helps with employee retention, morale, and productivity, while also helping to reduce the risk of claims for discrimination and harassment. These can be costly distractions for a business of any size, and the fallout from bad press may turn off current and potential customers.

JANICE SCHERWITZ is the benefits compliance analyst at TriNet, a California-based human resources company.

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Janice Scherwitz