Jump to section
Safety must be fundamental at work
A recent global survey on transgender and gender nonconforming employees (TGNC) reveals that less than one-third feel safe enough to be open about their identity at work. In all countries except for Brazil, TGNC employees are less likely to be out at work compared to their cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual colleagues.
Many workplaces still lack a supportive environment for TGNC employees, evident in inadequate policies, tolerance for workplace harassment, and insufficient support for those coming out. This dynamic suggests that numerous TGNC employees may feel uncomfortable expressing themselves in the workplace, prioritizing safety over disclosure.
HR professionals and workplace leaders must recognize that employees with these identities are likely in their workplace, even if they’re not openly expressed. The global survey underscores that when TGNC employees come out at work, the primary motivation across all surveyed countries is the desire to live authentically in their professional lives.
Living authentically shouldn’t feel dangerous
A McKinsey report, incorporating multiple surveys, highlighted that transgender employees consistently experience feelings of alienation and anxiety throughout the employment cycle, from the initial interview and hiring stages to their eventual departure.
One survey respondent framed it this way: “I decided a while ago that I’m just going to get through work until I can retire. I can survive being closeted for now. My goal is not to be fully out—it’s just to not feel unsafe.”
It’s a heartbreaking sentiment to feel the need to hide an important aspect of one’s identity for potentially 40 or 50 years to feel a measure of safety. Leaders and supervisors must understand the human toll required when trans employees find it challenging to be openly out at work.
Understanding this, how can HR leaders cultivate an environment that provides psychological and physical safety for trans employees?
5 ways to create psychological safety for trans employees
Beginning with an awareness that trans employees may fall into various categories—such as being out from the start of a job, being open in personal life but hesitant at work, or deciding to transition post-employment—HR and workplace leaders can consider the following concrete actions.
Offer trans competency training
There’s no wrong time for an organization to provide trans competency training for leaders, supervisors, and employees. Education, coupled with a shared vocabulary, serves as a valuable foundation for:
- Understanding the workplace barriers faced by trans employees
- Respecting proper pronoun usage
- Addressing internal and external stigma
- Encouraging allyship, as some employees may wish to challenge discrimination but lack the knowledge or language to do so
It’s crucial not to place the responsibility on trans employees to educate their colleagues, considering varying comfort levels. Speaking on behalf of all trans people and constantly fielding questions during the workday can be draining, especially amid existing workplace stress.
Consider hiring professionals for educational initiatives and conducting training thoughtfully to address this. For instance, incorporating a Q&A or discussion post-training can benefit cis employees, but make attendance optional. This ensures that trans, queer, or nonbinary employees aren’t compelled to endure potentially ignorant or rude comments.
Support transitioning employees
When an employee discloses their transition or readiness to come out at work, supervisors or leaders can approach the conversation in several ways:
- Let the employee lead the process: Allow them to decide whether to come out formally to the entire company or informally to their team or department.
- Be open and listen: Show openness, listen to the employee, and inquire about the support they need.
- Affirm the employee: Assure they’ll be safe and supported in the workplace.
- Collaborate on a plan: Work with the employee and HR to develop a strategy for notifying others about name and pronoun changes.
- Provide information on resources: Inform the employee about available resources or support groups within the company.
Ensure an integrated approach so employees aren’t repeatedly explaining themselves to different departments. Leadership figures must take the lead, exemplifying trans-inclusive behaviors and addressing non-inclusive conduct to signal that harassment is not tolerated.
Make policy and then put it into practice
Even with supportive HR leaders and supervisors, there may be employees resistant to treating their trans coworkers respectfully. Although change may take time, incorporating non-discrimination into company policies is a fundamental step in creating a work environment where trans employees can concentrate on their work without fearing for their safety, whether physical or psychological.
In addition to a robust non-discrimination policy, companies can consider implementing:
- Zero tolerance for transphobia or bullying: Clearly state and enforce this policy in both written documents and daily practices.
- Equity and diversity commitment: Include a company statement emphasizing commitment to equity and diversity.
- Transparent complaint process: Articulate a clear, investigative procedure for addressing complaints, with appropriate follow ups.
Providing material support is equally vital. This can include:
- Time off work for gender-affirming care: Offer the flexibility needed to accommodate medical appointments and recovery periods. .
- Trans-specific benefits: Ensure that health insurance covers gender affirmation surgery and hormone therapy, recognizing that not all trans individuals choose to undergo medical transition.
Consider this model policy as a guide for effective implementation.
Create the space for authentic expression
Gender and gender expression are often subtly regulated, a fact that may go unnoticed by those conforming to traditional gender norms. Workplaces—through gendered dress codes, language in policy documents, bathrooms designations, and specific work roles—contribute to this enforcement.
To foster more openness in employee self-expression, organizations can implement the following measures:
- Gender neutral and flexible dress codes: Allow employees the freedom to express themselves without adhering to traditional gender norms.
- Options for pronouns: Provide opportunities for individuals to specify their pronouns whenever names are given or recorded.
- Gender-neutral facilities: Ensure that bathrooms and changing rooms are designed with individual stalls, affording privacy to everyone.
These changes create an environment where employees have more room for self-expression. Cultures that embrace such openness promote creativity, innovation, and dynamism, as individuals feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work.
Put support systems in place
Building connections with colleagues who share similar experiences is crucial for feeling supported and understood at work. Establishing workplace support networks involves fostering relationships, knowing there are allies, and connecting with individuals who comprehend your experiences.
Organizations can provide support for trans employees by implementing and maintaining the following measures:
- Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): Create groups that provide a platform for shared experiences and mutual support.
- Regular check-ins: Facilitate one-on-one check-ins with managers, supervisors, or HR leaders to ensure ongoing support and understanding.
- Employee assistance programs (EAPs): Offer programs that include therapy and mental health support to address the unique challenges faced by trans employees.
- Community support networks: Provide information about external community networks that offer additional support.
- Mentoring and peer support programs: Establish initiatives that pair trans employees with mentors or peers for guidance and encouragement.
Employers have a duty of care to keep all employees safe
Creating an environment where trans employees feel safe, respected, and supported fosters conditions for greater expressiveness, creativity, and authenticity in the workplace.
My hope for HR and People leaders is to confront their stigma and unconscious biases and identify their origins. Every employee deserves a workplace where they feel safe and can navigate the world authentically without the need to conceal themselves due to fear of violence and harassment.
A workplace that allows trans employees to feel safe and free in expressing themselves becomes more vibrant, innovative, productive, and joyful.
Read this blog next for more ways to create an inclusive workplace, along with where and how to start.