Why your company needs a gender expression policy

Do you have a gender expression policy? Few companies do, but it’s one of the most powerful things you can do to demonstrate support for employees who plan to formally transition gender, or for those who don’t identify as a binary gender and may want to vary their gender expression.

It’s not difficult. It’s not expensive. And it makes a world of difference to trans and non-binary employees.

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You may think your company doesn’t have any trans or non-binary employees’. If you’re a large company, you almost certainly do. They just don’t feel safe coming forward to ask about it. If it’s not something you routinely, positively talk about, proactively putting in place and, importantly, promoting a gender expression policy demonstrates that you welcome and support all gender expressions.

When you’re ready to get started, don’t do it in isolation. Invite and include trans and non-binary voices. If you have a LGBT+ employee network, bring them into the conversation. If you don’t, find expert voices to help you, such as trans and non-binary consultancy Global Butterflies

Trying to write a policy for trans or non-binary people from a cis-gender perspective, irrespective of how educated you believe yourself to be, is not an inclusive approach to an inclusion issue. 

A fundamental aspect of a gender expression policy is that it goes at the transitioning employee’s pace. They may come forward to find out about it and ask a few questions, then they may not want to do anything for months, maybe longer, or not at all. The clock doesn’t start ticking as soon as they ask about the policy.

As with most inclusion issues, education is key. Trans and non-binary allyship should be a standard element of any DEI programme, but when someone feels ready to transition, their line manager and colleagues need specific training. 

In particular the HR community needs to be well-trained and have the capability to jump straight into action, guiding and supporting both the transitioning employee and their line manager to make it a straightforward and positive experience for everyone.

Transitioning employees may not want to educate their colleagues, and it’s not their job to do it. Their colleagues also may not feel comfortable asking them the questions they really want to ask. 

Once again, a trans-owned consultancy is best for this, where an open and honest conversation helps everyone to understand everything they need to understand. 

Something to note: it’s none of your business whether the transitioning employee is planning to have gender affirmation surgery or other medical procedures.

You wouldn’t ask any other employee if they’re planning to have surgery. You’d react to it and support it as needed under your medical absence policy, and that’s what should happen with gender expression.

If you have an employee assistance programme, it would be particularly helpful to include gender reassignment surgery and gender transition counselling in your medical cover. 

Another helpful element of a gender expression policy is to offer a single point of contact for the logistics and personal details changes – for example, their name, title, email address, office identity card, gender marker, pensions information, updating any mention of the employee on the company website, etc.

Some people might want to do it all themselves, but others may prefer not to have to explain themselves several times to people who may not be aware of the policy and may react inappropriately. A well-trained ally in HR or IT is usually best-placed to do this.

Depending on the employee’s role, you may also need to advise customers of what to expect and offer them some advice and guidance. Make it clear that you’re in full support of the transition, and as far as you’re concerned it’s business as usual.

Once the employee has changed their gender expression, check in frequently and actively support them. The vast majority of employees are very supportive of their trans colleagues. Occasionally, some may express hostility, for example by refusing to use the correct name or pronouns, or demanding that their colleague use gender neutral toilet facilities

If the employee does experience hostility that goes beyond accidental name or pronoun errors, justifying or downplaying it, or allowing colleagues to do so can be hugely detrimental. You know the kind of thing you’ll hear: ‘It’s a sensitive topic, it’s hard for the team to come to terms with, I can understand why they’re behaving this way.' You wouldn't accept that if employees were being hostile towards religious expression or a visible disability. Deal with it as you would any other problematic behaviour. 

But enough of the doom and gloom, transition is something to celebrate, so if the transitioning employee is comfortable with it, do just that.

Rebecca Berry is an independent inclusion coach and consultant