Transgender in the Workplace

Corporate America’s Last Great Human Rights Issue

The workplaces of America long have been laboratories for social experimentation. Social change for minorities—including efforts toward the achievement of civil equality and human rights—often has taken root and/or occurred first in places where people work.

The influx of women into mainstream careers during and following World War II was the beginning of this paradigm shift. In the 1960s, racial integration on the job began to take place after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act. For the first time, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Arab Americans, etc., began working alongside white Americans. People were starting to learn that different genders and races could work side by side, offer each other dignity and respect, and still achieve business results.

Next came gays and lesbians. After the Stonewall Riot in 1969 (an event precipitated by the actions of some courageous drag queens who chose to stand up against police brutality and oppression), the movement for acceptance of sexual minorities became a workplace dynamic. As a result, most major companies now have policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Ageism, ableism, and other “isms” weren’t far behind, either, in terms of being addressed by the business community. “Diversity” became a buzzword in the workplaces of America. Now, “inclusion” is the mot du jour.

Currently, we’re seeing a remarkable occurrence in a new area of workplace inclusion: issues such as gender identity, gender characteristics, and gender expression are being taken seriously by increasing numbers of successful corporate entities. Transgender has become a relevant, valid, and timely area of business interest.

All this has happened in less than a decade. In 2000, only three of the Fortune 500 companies included gender identity in their employee nondiscrimination policies. Since that time, however, more than one-third of the Fortune 500 have adopted such policies, making transgender a significant, identifiable workplace trend that holds meaningful implications for the future of workplace inclusion and business success.

In previous decades, a worker who came out as transgender or sought to transition from one social gender role to another on the job usually was invited to leave and pursue such activities elsewhere. However, many transgender employees today are choosing to remain in their positions, and continue working for their original organizations. This recent workplace development usually impacts not only transgender workers, but also their families, coworkers, HR professionals, organizational management, customers of the business, and the company’s bottom line. Consequently, the transgender phenomenon deserves attention not only in the business community, but also in every part of society.

As of this writing, only 13 states have enacted laws to protect transgender persons in the area of employment, which means in 37 states, it still is perfectly legal to fire anyone who is transgender—or who even may be suspected of being gender variant. In 1993, Minnesota became the first state to enact a nondiscrimination statute including gender identity. This law specifically addresses issues of housing, employment, and public accommodations. Minnesotans can be proud of our state’s leadership on this particular human rights issue.

Currently, Congress is considering a transgender-inclusive Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Should that initiative eventually become law, employment discrimination against transgender persons would be banned. A new era would dawn in the workplaces of America, and the business community doubtless would experience some far-reaching ramifications from the new legal status of transgender workers.

Introducing momentous change never is easy, especially in emotionally charged situations that can be misunderstood and/or may be shrouded in mystery and misconception. Transgender is one such hot-button topic. It often provokes visceral responses, some of which are rooted in prejudicial attitudes and bigoted behaviors.

Many people still don’t accept transgender individuals as human beings with basic rights. Certainly, some people may become uncomfortable with the presence of openly transgender individuals, but that’s no legitimate reason to deny equality, respect, and dignity to transgender workers.

Here are some reasons why people need to become more educated about this issue:

• Of necessity, organizations will want to learn how to address transgender-related workplace issues efficiently, and accommodate reasonable needs of transgender workers, including hiring, training, promoting, medical benefits, etc. Implementing trans-inclusive workplace policies and procedures will be increasingly important.

• Coworkers will need to learn how to operate effectively alongside transgender team members. Consequently, part of an organization’s overall inclusion/diversity strategy specifically should involve transgender awareness training.

• Businesses will want to learn more about selling to the transgender community, an overlooked but potentially lucrative marketing demographic.

• While a trans-inclusive ENDA (theoretically) should make it safer for transgender employees to come out and/or transition on the job, gender-variant workers will need to maintain a focus on being valuable, productive members of their companies.

The business case for transgender inclusion is solid. If companies seek to be competitive, they must become more sensitive to inclusion issues in order to recruit and retain the brightest and best. A loss of talent in the form of qualified workers, regardless of their gender identity, comes at a cost to employers. The expense of recruiting, hiring, and training new employees can be significant.

Also, rather than responding to the threat of litigation, increasing numbers of employers are choosing to extend protection to transgender workers because of the obvious business advantages of a diverse, trans-inclusive workforce. Such initiatives create a variety of positive benefits for organizations seeking a more creative, productive, and profitable work environment.

For all these reasons and more, the topic of transgender in the workplace is becoming progressively prominent throughout the corporate world. If a trans-inclusive ENDA becomes the law of the land, this issue only will increase in its overall business impact. Organizations equipped with the appropriate knowledge, tools, and resources to be transgender-inclusive will possess a significant business advantage over their competition. Transgender is truly a workplace issue whose time has come.

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