Workplace Management

Should we consider the transition of this employee a confidential matter?

When an employee is transitioning in the workplace other employees need to be aware of three simple things:  the process in advance,  what is expected of them and management’s stance on the issue.

This will dispel any possible misunderstandings and rumour, discourage inappropriate behaviour from fellow employees, and prevent possible harassment or discrimination towards the employee concerned.

“My original desire was to do the talking myself and address what I felt needed addressing. However the HR department gave my team leader the advice that as this was a management/HR issue, and that she should be the one to do the announcement. I wasn’t sure about this at the time but now I really appreciate it.
Unless I want to chat about it, it’s not a subject for discussion. I actually don’t know if anyone had any “issues” over it, and I’m really comfortable not knowing. It means I don’t feel tentative working with these people.”
– Justin

The workplace disclosure process must be agreed upon between the transitioning employee and management.  Most men who undergo transition usually consider this process to be a private personal matter.

Should we transfer a transitioning employee to a new location?

A transfer is not the ideal solution for the employer, the employee or his co-workers. Shifting the employee in these circumstances tends to create an atmosphere of shame and suspicion. Keeping the process hidden from co-workers is likely to fuel the rumour mill and lead to further workplace disruption. It is better to resolve any issues with facilities or other employees in the current work environment.

If the employee is afraid of the reaction of colleagues, then reassure him. A common response when an employee tells his co-workers of his decision to transition is often ‘well, that makes sense to me!’ or ‘I wondered when you were going to do that’. Employees, in general, will be guided by the reaction of management. If the employer approaches the issue openly and honestly then adverse reaction from other staff will be minimal.

In all instances, be guided by the wishes of the employee involved. In cases where the employee in transition wishes to be relocated, then any such relocation should be treated as any other business related transfer.

How should we inform fellow employees?

Informing other employees about their colleague’s changing role is the most critical task for management. Offering an informational meeting is helpful in most work situations.

Current best practice is to agree on a ‘Transition Date’ for the workplace. It has proven useful for the employee to take a short period of leave from work, before returning to the workplace in their new gender role. This period of absence is often used as an opportunity to brief workmates of the impending name change, the gradual change in appearance, and the use of male toilets and change rooms.

“…everyone at work had a chance to talk about it while he was gone, to get it out of their systems and have the novelty wear off. When he returned to work he dressed a bit differently, had his hair cut shorter and was using his new name. It was a clean break – he literally told everyone, then walked out the door on holidays. This was all coordinated with management and coincided with his legal name change.”
– a partner

It is important that you, as the employer lead by example. Use the new name and pronouns in all official and unofficial communication. Make it clear that the transition is ‘no big deal’ and that work will continue as usual.

Is there anything fellow employees can do to make the transition easier?

All staff should use the employee’s new name and use appropriate pronouns (‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’). In the early days it is only natural that people will occasionally get mixed up. Employers must also be aware of the genuine concerns that members of staff may have and resolve any issues quickly.

Unfortunately, no matter how much preparation is made and support given, there may still be people who do not understand the situation or refuse to acknowledge the employee’s change in status. It is advisable to discuss the situation with the transitioning employee and agree informally how he would prefer any such issues to be managed.

What can I do to help co-workers adjust?

When an employee transitions on the job, colleagues need to be aware of the change, preferably some time in advance. Disclosure to fellow employees must be negotiated and agreed upon with the employee. If the employee prefers to do this himself, then the employer will simply need to be aware when the disclosure is to take place in order to provide appropriate support.

Management should make a clear statement supporting the right of the employee to maintain employment and emphasise their commitment to a workplace where all employees are valued and respected. This statement must be reinforced through action. Management needs to demonstrate its commitment by dealing with the transitioning employee appropriately at all times and by disciplining those employees who harass or intimidate him.

It is natural that co-workers will have some concerns and questions. Make sure these are answered factually, reinforcing the company’s equity policy. While it is natural people will be curious about the actual process, questions of a personal nature are not appropriate unless the employee specifically offers to answer such questions. Their right to personal privacy must be respected by both management and colleagues.

How will our customers react?

Many employees have transitioned comfortably in workplaces where they interact face-to-face with the public. Their transition is rarely an issue with customers and clients. In the rare event that a customer does make a complaint it should be dealt with according to the company’s established complaints procedures. In reality most customers don’t even notice.

“As an engraver, I work in one of those little Mr Minit-type kiosks in the middle of the centre, in a fish-bowl, on display all day. I never told any of the customers specifically. If they guessed, they guessed. Otherwise, who really cares? As long as I can engrave, there’s no issue.”
– Reid, Queensland

How should we handle religious objections or similar workplace concerns?

Workplace policies are about ensuring workplace fairness, not about changing beliefs.

“When one of the employees did cause problems for me, the matter was officially handled by the HR section of the company. This person was not “punished” for his actions, but rather was moved to another section to be separate from me for a period of time. I later joined his section and due to the way the matter was handled, we were able to form a good working relationship.”
– Andrew G, Queensland

Some people will inevitably be offended or challenged by anything new in the workplace. Employers who support their employee’s decision to transition, and deal with the matter in a non-sensational way have found that, after a day or two, the novelty wears off and the workplace routine returns to normal.