How to Help Your Transgender Employees Feel Safer at Work

The tech industry has a long way to go when it comes to supporting transgender employees. Here are concrete steps companies can take to change things.
Sunny Betz
July 25, 2021
Updated: September 9, 2021
Sunny Betz
July 25, 2021
Updated: September 9, 2021

Platforms like Twitter and Reddit are spaces where transgender people can find community — and it was through online forum discussions that Soren Hamby began to explore their gender identity.

“I grew up in a conservative part of Alabama, where there wasn’t as much representation, and being part of the early internet was my first exposure to the queer community,” said Hamby, a user experience lead at New York-based UX design studio Jack Strategy.

Like many other gender-nonconforming people, Hamby joined online forum discussions about gender to find other people who felt the same way they did. These online communities eventually helped Hamby develop the confidence to come out as nonbinary. Technology has created more space for acceptance, but, off screen, digital tools and services can sometimes make everyday life more difficult.

How To Support Transgender Employees

  • Provide extensive healthcare coverage.
  • Standardize pronoun sharing.
  • Establish ERGs.
  • Donate to community relief organizations.
  • Host inclusion trainings.
  • Educate yourself.

For instance, early into their transition, Max Masure walked into a cafe and ordered coffee. “When my drink was ready, they misgendered me and called me by my deadname,” they said. Masure didn’t think the mistake was purposeful — it was more likely that the card reader technology grabbed the name on their credit card for the drink order.

This type of uncomfortable experience might’ve been avoided if designers had considered a transgender person’s perspectives in the process, said Masure, a New York-based UX researcher and co-founder of The Healing Schools Project. This moment, among many others, inspired them to begin leading LGBTQ+ inclusion trainings and to speak on panels about transgender-specific workplace issues.

As awareness increases around the issues transgender people face, the technology and products are improving. But it’s also important for tech companies to ensure the workplace is transgender friendly — Google, Apple and Salesforce are now topping lists of best places to work for LGBTQ+ employees. Tech companies need transgender engineers, designers and developers to call out the restrictive binaries and gendered language in code — and part of that means making sure the office isn’t a hostile or uncomfortable place to be. But the industry isn’t there yet, only 64 percent of transgender tech workers feel safe at work, according to a 2020 study.

“There’s a phrase that goes: Nothing for us, without us, is for us,” Hamby said. “I feel the same way about transgender activism — when we aren’t supported, and our voices aren’t amplified, it makes it difficult for us to find community.”

 

Support Needs to Be Active, Not Performative

As activists and allies push for awareness around LGBTQ+ issues, tech companies are becoming more vocal supporters of the trans community. There are numerous examples of how tech companies show their support, especially during Pride Month. Apple released Pride-themed products, Google honored LGBTQ+ artists with its Google Doodles and Verizon hosted a virtual panel with LGBTQ+ community leaders and organizations.

It’s great to raise awareness, but it’s really only a starting point. If awareness campaigns and logo changes aren’t accompanied by action items, they wind up as branding efforts rather than activism. Transgender people in particular need sustained, material support, especially during a time that has seen a massive uptick in transphobic legislation.

“We need real tangible actions that will make our lives better.”

“We don’t really need the performative actions of changing a logo or running a Pride month special marketing campaign,” Hamby said. “We need real tangible actions that will make our lives better.”

In order to truly support transgender people, companies should make sure their initiatives have lasting impacts. Adobe provides their employees with a range of trans-specific healthcare coverage, and IBM has instituted a workplace policy that provides employees the freedom and support to transition at their own pace.

Companies can step up and pledge regular contributions to organizations like The Okra Project and For the Gworls that work toward supporting Black trans people in need. Startups can also host workshops throughout the year to educate employees on transgender issues and discrimination.

“Trans people’s emails do work after July 1st,” Hamby said. “You can still book us for trainings, even if it isn’t Pride month.”

More DEI Reading16 Unconscious Bias Examples and How to Avoid Them in the Workplace

 

Work on Harm Reduction

Too often accommodations for transgender people are made after the problem has occurred. As a leader, it’s better to be proactive. Confronting a manager about a workplace issue can be stressful, but for transgender people, it can also be dehumanizing since it’s their identities and safety that they’re put in the position of defending.

“Putting the burden on the person who’s discriminated against is extremely exhausting,” said Abby Stegall, junior UX developer at Los Angeles-based engineering product company Morris Group International. “If you make their well-being a priority ahead of time, it will make that employee feel a lot more welcome in the company.”

Companies must cultivate environments where transgender employees can share concerns without fear of retribution. Rather than waiting for someone to come forward about a situation after the fact, ask employees what they need on day one. Team training sessions can help other employees learn the basics, like how to avoid misgendering people and using correct pronouns.

“Companies I work with sometimes say oh no, we don’t have any trans employees, so we don’t need these trainings,” Masure said. “But you need to train your people, so that if you do hire trans folks, they feel safe.”

 

Accommodate Trans-Specific Healthcare Needs

A major concern for many trans people at work is healthcare. Whether it’s hormone replacement therapy, surgery costs or counseling, transgender employees need insurance benefits that cover their needs. Unfortunately, 24 states and Washington, D.C., currently allow health insurers to exclude trans-specific care from their coverage plans, and only 22 percent of employers provide gender transition coverage in their healthcare plans. Even when their plans do provide coverage, transgender patients often have to jump through hoops to find a doctor or get necessary prescriptions.

“It’s so hard to get surgeries approved by your insurance that trans people are often paying out of pocket,” Hamby said. Companies should do their best to eliminate as many barriers to care as possible, they said. This means extensively evaluating the healthcare benefits offered to employees and understanding the unique healthcare challenges transgender people face. It also means removing gendered language or requirements from standing policies.

“It’s important, when it comes to healthcare to be flexible and understanding.”

For instance, companies can change the name of their maternity leave policy to parental leave, and provide the same leave period regardless of gender. Scotiabank is one company that has moved to expand its healthcare benefits to cover electrolysis, rhinoplasty and voice training — services that are often not covered by traditional healthcare policies.

There are many other trans-specific healthcare needs aside from surgeries and hormone therapy that often slip under the radar. For example, as a trans woman, Stegall deals with gender dysphoria. It is the distress experienced when someone’s gender presentation doesn’t match their assigned gender — it’s a mental-health issue that many trans people experience, and it causes Stegall a lot of anxiety. Just like depression or burnout, it’s a problem that employers should be familiar with.

“There’s a lot of things that will get overlooked, especially with how individual each trans person is,” she said. “It’s important, when it comes to healthcare to be flexible and understanding.”

More Leadership AdviceWhy Inclusive Leadership Is Essential for Tech Companies

 

Establish Employee Resource Groups

ERGs are an effective way to help your employees carve out spaces for themselves — they provide your teams with the opportunity to connect with members of their community and share their unique experiences in a safe environment.

An ERG for transgender employees and their allies is a place to kickstart conversations about trans issues and workplace inclusion, but it’s important to make sure those conversations aren’t confined to the ERG space. Employers should make an effort to develop an overall workplace environment that makes people feel safe to be themselves and talk about their experiences, without putting them in the position of constantly educating others.

“It’s really hard sometimes to be in ERGs that are for LGBTQ+ people and allies, because there still has to be a lot of education going on in that space for allies, which is draining,” Hamby said. “Other communities deserve the same thing — Black folks in tech need spaces to talk about racism they face at work, people with disabilities to talk about their frustrations with accommodations, and so on.”

 

Don’t Just Ask for Pronouns — Share Yours

One of the simplest ways to make transgender employees feel comfortable in the office is by encouraging pronoun introductions whenever possible. Standardizing pronouns in email signatures, Slack profiles and conversation makes it easier for transgender teammates to share their identity openly, without being afraid that they’ll be on their own.

“There’s very little risk for cisgender people to share their pronouns, and encouraging pronoun introductions in company culture is amazing,” Hamby said. “You shouldn’t just ask people what their pronouns are, if you think they look queer — you should just volunteer your own pronouns.”

Pronoun introductions help, but slip ups happen, and sometimes people will get it wrong. This is why DEI training is essential — it provides colleagues with the tools to correct their mistakes in an appropriate way, without causing a scene or doing more harm.

“During my workshops, I help people get in the habit of respecting pronouns and working through scenarios where they mess up,” Masure said.

 

Respect Privacy

There are unique challenges and joys that come with being transgender, but trans employees deserve the same privacy and respect that anyone else does. While you might be curious about someone’s birth name, their medical care or their transition journey, it’s invasive to ask for that information if the person you’re speaking to hasn’t volunteered it themselves. Be conscientious about the questions you ask and consider whether they are relevant or necessary in an office setting.

“Most of the time, the only parts of my trans identity that needs to be touched upon in workplace settings are the pronouns I use and my name,” Stegall said. “Discussions about sick leave for trans-related medical care, or similar concerns, should just be between the manager and the employee. Otherwise, I just want to be treated like everyone else.”

More Advice on InclusionHow 8 Companies Support Their LGBTQIA+ Employees

 

Educate Yourself

It’s OK if you haven’t learned everything yet. Be cautious of asking your employees to educate you — transgender people are accustomed to being on the defense when it comes to their identity, and it’s tiring for them to repeatedly answer the same questions. Instead, take the time to preemptively seek resources and learn on your own time.

“You have to be inclusive not because it’ll improve productivity, or because it will make your shareholders more money.”

When leaders take initiative to educate themselves on the issues, their teammates and colleagues feel seen and valued as human beings, not just as employees.

“You have to be inclusive not because it’ll improve productivity, or because it will make your shareholders more money,” Hamby said. “You have to do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

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