Working for myself, there are both more and fewer risks simultaneously being a trans employee. I can choose who I work with, but I also don’t get a paycheck just for showing up. No client, no money. What if no one wanted to work with me? The biggest question that kept spinning in my mind when I came out was that if people didn’t feel comfortable with me, if they worried about offending me, would they ever consider hiring me to train their teams to write job postings?
I say all this from the safe harbor of self-employment. I write my check and I can fire anyone who treats me like shit – contractor or customer alike.
I can’t imagine what it feels like to come out in a workplace where you don’t get to throw a coming out party, but instead feel an all over panic. A place you don’t feel safe. Or worse? Your panic and quiet fears become reality when you head to work and wish you never came out at all based on the treatment from your peers.
Doing The “Right Thing” to Create Safe Spaces for Trans Employees
I also, and no offense to them, don’t have to deal with well-intentioned HR people who want to talk to me about my life before I’m ready.
I talk to a lot of people with great intentions of “doing the right thing” when it comes to trans employees. The truth is, while doing the right things will come with a lot of baselines, the big picture isn’t so easy. There aren’t booklets or policies that can predict what happens when someone comes out as trans at work.
That means the role of HR and people leaders becomes a lot more challenging when it comes to trans employees and creating safe spaces for trans employees. Often, these HR leaders are cis and may have never met a trans person before. They don’t know what the “right thing” is and reach out to others to find out what to do. I was emailed by someone trying to figure it out just a few weeks ago. They said:
“We have 2 trans employees (both currently transitioning M to F) and I want to somehow let them know that myself and my office are safe spaces for them without putting them on the spot or making them feel uncomfortable. I’d like to connect with the one here in the office. I feel awful for her – I know she faced discrimination when she came out (those employees were dealt with before my time). She ducks out a back entrance, and really seems to try to keep her head down and keep to herself. I’ve introduced myself the same way I have with everyone else, but I don’t know how to connect with her and let her know that my office is safe. I’d love your input on doing so without making her even more uncomfortable.“
My advice for this HR person and anyone struggling in this moment is…
- If this person has not come out to you themselves, don’t you say a word. You don’t get to ask about genitals, gender at birth, or anything else about my life unless I have explicitly mentioned these things to you. Just because you know they’re trans doesn’t mean they want you to know or want to talk to you about it.
- Think about the realities of every day life – things like where people go to the bathroom or how your medical plan supports benefits for people transitioning. I need you to advocate for the realities of my life, not just for “accepting trans-ness.” Accepting means equal access. Not special privileges. A gender neutral bathroom can go a long way.
- Look at company-wide and leadership education for your company. Create onboarding that builds belonging from day 1. Put hiring managers through training about pronouns. Do pronoun education. Hire speakers from all over the binary, even if they aren’t represented in your company to your knowledge, so we can prepare our company to be a place where anyone can be safe before we have an issue.
- Ask yourself what you would do for someone you love. Yes, I said love. I know there are a few very business-legal types going “noooo” while reading this, but hear me out. Ask yourself how you would treat someone you loved with all your heart that was going through this. What would you want them to have? How would you want someone to advocate for them? Do that.
All the policy and good intentions in the world won’t make people feel safe. When you want to create safe spaces for trans employees? It’s about training. Education.
If you’re looking for education materials without the big budget, may I recommend my free eBook on pronouns and building belonging? You can also have me come in to speak to your employees in June (or any month) to teach this topic live.
Katrina Kibben is the Founder and Principal Consultant of Three Ears Media. For most of Katrina’s career, she has been a marketer living in a recruiter’s world – listening to both sides of the talent equation to understand the real issues and find solutions for engaging and hiring better people. Today, she uses her technical marketing know-how and way with words to help both established and emerging brands develop and deliver content that fuels smart recruitment marketing that makes the right people apply.
Katrina has written for Monster.com, HR.com, RecruitingDaily and many other digital publications. She is a recognized leader in recruiting and employer branding who speaks regularly at conferences around the world.