How to approach gender transitioning in the workplace

How to approach gender transitioning in the workplace

The personal journey of changing one’s gender is a challenge within all aspects of life. This most certainly includes work and the workplace, where how we’re defined as individuals informs a wider, collective purpose. Employee and employer therefore share certain responsibilities within a gender transition to successfully support it.

In this feature we shift the perspective slightly to consider how an employer should approach a gender transition within the workplace. By examining specific areas of concern, the hope is to confront the issue and alleviate fears on both sides. From a position of protecting staff in respecting their rights and decisions, a workplace gender transition needn’t seem intimidating!

Timing telling others

The way a company communicates an employee’s transition amongst staff is a key area. Guided largely by the wishes of the individual, it also traditionally the role of Human Resources departments to lead the way here in determining the most effective and sensitive path. HR should be equipped to not only protect the employee in accordance with formal rights but also lead the line in spreading a message of corporate acceptance.

“Management can help co-workers understand how they are expected to behave by making a clear statement supporting the right of transsexual employees to make decisions about their sex and gender,” advises Janis Walworth in her book Transsexual Workers: An Employer’s Guide. “Affirming the value of diversity in the workplace.”

Timing too must conform to the agreed plan for how the individual in question feels happiest. Jumping the gun and taking decisions out of that person’s control is wrong. There must be an acknowledgement of where that person is within personal communications with co-workers to avoid confusion.

Timing regards dress code

The issue of dress code is really again about communicating a transition visually. In many instances the responsibility to inform staff of such change is made less significant by the company’s pre-existing dress code rules, whether formal or informal or indeed the nature of the transition – female to male, male to female. Under these varying circumstances the extent of deviations in dress code should be considered in consultation with the transitioning individual.

Certain instances of informal dress code changes can too be informed by choices the individual makes during more social work events. These opportunities may provide added freedom and confidence for an expression of preferred attire that may then be introduced more gradually within a workplace.

In cases where formal dress code applies to all staff, HR should care to ensure a transitioning employee is never pressurised into work uniform designed for a specific gender.

Honesty on surgery

Possibly the most sensitive aspect of a transition is that of surgery. Contrary to what some may expect, this isn’t information others are obliged to know about within such a process. However, a policy of openness and honesty between employee and employer should be encouraged. This is important not least for organising periods of absence effectively, removing any need for dishonesty over medical leave.

In fact such periods of absence can on occasion be integrated into an effective transition, particularly where such obvious physical changes are expected. During such times an agreed strategy of company communication may commence to pre-empt a post-surgery return to work by briefing staff accordingly.

“Talk with the person who is transitioning and devise a strategy that works for the company and for that person,” insists Dr. Keith Merron, co-author of the book, Gender Intelligence ( “There is no “one size fits all” for any company or person. A good company will deal with it openly, neither ignoring it, nor giving it too much attention.”

Don’t be afraid

This is two-fold really. Companies most of all shouldn’t be afraid of a gender transition or equally hiring anyone who is transgender. When all is said and done recruitment is about enlisting the best, most qualified people and then supporting your staff to provide optimum conditions for their success. Why should that be made any more awkward in this instance? On the contrary, modern progressive employers should perhaps view gender transition as an enriching experience.

“The best companies are those that embrace differences, welcome all genders, races, and personal choices and see them as part of the rich tapestry of life,” continues Dr. Merron. “And they see well beyond those differences to find the unique capability of each employee.”

By being suitably informed and open-minded to the needs of the individual it needn’t be seen as an “HR headache” but rather a mark of distinction for company policy on equal opportunities.

Final thoughts

Central to many of these things is the support and protection for staff choice. If there’s a “right” way to handle workplace gender transition it’s in line with the wishes of the individual while helping colleagues play their part in accepting such change. It’s also an on-going, broader process and sending positive corporate messages that influence the culture of your business makes all staff feel welcome and respected.

“In many ways, while gender transitioning may seem like a dramatic choice, as people in an organisation we all have our own choices and differences,” Dr. Merron concludes. “And as a company, we need to welcome the differences while always maintaining our focus on what we are here to do together.”


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