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Creating a trans- and gender-friendly workplace

What is making it ‘too difficult’ for some workplaces to get language around gender identity right?

Acas’ research report Supporting trans employees in the workplace highlights the critical need for education in bringing about change. As with any equality issue, the first step is understanding and absorbing the terminology. The second is to be willing to adapt and change, albeit recognising that language will be in a state of flux for some time to come.

Many people struggle with the rapidly-evolving vocabulary. This is understandable when you look at the comprehensive list of terms in Acas’ typology guide. However, making a conscious effort to stay in tune with changes is key to achieving equality and inclusion. All too often people stick with the widespread assumption that there are only two genders – male and female. Not only that, but many still confuse sexual orientation with gender identity.

We have to learn new words for different technology all the time, so there is no reason language around trans and gender should be any different, particularly when it can mean so much to a person’s identity and self-worth. Asking someone what pronouns they use, for example, is far better than assuming and getting it wrong. Mirroring the language used by an individual can also be a powerful way to communicate. This can help to prevent instances of:

  • Misgendering – Referring to someone using a word, especially a pronoun or a form of address, that does not correctly reflect the gender with which they identify
  • Deadnaming – Calling someone by their birth name after they have changed their name. This is often associated with trans people who have changed their name as part of their transition.

While accidental mistakes can and do happen, these instances can be persistent and malicious, causing serious harm and humiliation to those on the receiving end. It is not surprising, then, that half of trans and non-binary people have hidden or disguised the fact that they are LGBT+ at work for fear of discrimination. Furthermore, mental health problems are more common among LGBT+ workers.

It’s been almost half a century since the Stonewall riots, so there must soon come a point where we stop seeing the words ‘trans’, ‘discrimination’ and ‘bullying’ side by side.

Many workplaces are guilty of being too inactive. The Acas report found that disputes tended to be most prevalent in organisations that had been reactive to an individual’s request to transition. Policies were put together at the 11th hour and employers lacked the understanding to effectively support the individual through the process.

We hear about the importance of policies all the time, particularly in relation to equality issues, and there’s a reason for that. Having specific policies provides clarity on rights and responsibilities for all. But policies also signal to trans, intersex and non-binary staff that they will be supported (and make clear how). They should cover matters such as transitioning, uniforms, use of facilities, personal records, and communication with other colleagues.

And it’s important to review your recruitment processes. Using gender-neutral language and making application forms flexible in terms of available pronouns and titles ensures your practices are inclusive of all genders. Information must be handled sensitively and confidentially. No trans, intersex or non-binary employee should ever be outed; the decision to come out will always be theirs and disclosure of their identity must be with their explicit consent.

Those are perhaps the easier bits. Harder is ensuring that managers have the confidence and awareness to support trans, intersex and non-binary staff. Knowing, for example, that the process of transitioning is unique to each individual is key. Acas’ guidance on gender reassignment covers key points, tips and myths.

As we celebrate Pride month it’s a good time to reflect on where we are with making all workplaces trans- and gender-friendly, and what progress still needs to be made.

Simone Cheng is a policy adviser at Acas