Vista has trained numerous organisations in supporting transgender employees in the workplace, and is well aware of the difficult issues and sensitive questions that employers may face.
It is crucial to plan in advance for an employee who approaches you about gender reassignment. Handling that conversation sensitively yet productively can be difficult. One of the most common questions is ‘what do you do about the toilets?’ A recurring mistake within organisations is telling transgender people to use the disabled toilets as a way of avoiding conflict; this could be considered discrimination. It is also important to think about the wider implications, for example whether the individual will need to use changing rooms during working hours or whether different uniforms will be necessary.
It is vital you know when the law applies. The moment an employee communicates their change of gender to the employer they are protected under the Equality Act (2010), regardless of whether the person has undergone any treatment or begun any medication at that point. Employers should therefore take steps to enable the staff member to use their chosen facilities as soon as they are informed.
Think about the +
Review your company policy to ensure it incorporates transgender employees appropriately. A number of organisations have added a + to their LGBT policy as a way of including all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Your HR and administrative systems need to have the ability to accommodate workers undergoing gender reassignment while at the same time maintaining confidentiality and data protection.
The HR operations team also need to be ready to deal with issues arising as a consequence of gender reassignment, for example absence requests. Employers could directly discriminate if they treat the employee less favourably than those on sickness absence leave.
Training to change behaviour is one of the toughest issues you can face. Unlike other training programmes the focus is not on tangible skillsets, competencies and knowledge. Instead it needs to challenge stereotypical assumptions and change mindsets while setting out clear expectations.
Ensure that you are equipped with the right language tools to deal with conversations about transgender issues. Managers need to be confident in terminology as well as being able to effectively handle office 'banter'.
Training should also provide a space for employees to discuss their fears and anxieties, which will help to alert mangers to issues before they escalate. Creating a level of trust will encourage staff to talk about gender reassignment and its effects. Training around how to challenge behaviour, tackle sensitive questions, break down prejudices, and move away from negative misconceptions will all help to reshape the culture within the workforce.
Think about the effect delving too deep into someone's past could have. For example, if references are requested from a number of years ago it could lead to a potential employee feeling uncomfortable about revealing their past for fear it could influence a present decision about their employment.
2015 may well be the year that transgender becomes mainstream but we all need to work hard to strip down barriers and ensure that the workplace is a supportive environment. The LGBT mental health charity Pace reported an alarming statistic that 48% of transgender people under the age of 26 have attempted suicide, compared to 6% of all adults. It is statistics like this that underline just how vital it is to ensure workplaces are open and understanding.
Vicky Roberts is head of learning and development at HR and employment law firm Vista