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Transgender issues in the workplace

In 2012, a coroner ruled that transgender primary school teacher Lucy Meadows had been driven to suicide, in part, by newspaper reports which had ‘outed’ her. With protests outside the Daily Mail’s offices and tearful statements by the Meadows’ family, the issue of how well society deals with trans people made headlines across the country.

Four years on, society’s discomfort with trans issues are nowhere more obvious than in the workplace. Ironically, Lucy Meadows was fully supported by the school where she taught. But, many employers will have no idea what to do when a trans employee ‘comes out’ to them. What is to be done about uniforms, toilets and changing rooms? How do you tell your staff that a colleague is transitioning?

It may seem like a relatively ‘new’ issue for employers to deal with. But, trans people - people who have a different gender identity and/or gender expression to their biological sex - form as much as 1% of the population. This means employers ought to know how to support someone wishing to transition.

Step one is to agree how the process of transition will work for both parties. Drawing up a ‘memorandum of understanding’ is the best way forward. This is an agreement between the employer and employee about how and when communications on the change will take place, who will take action and other matters including:

  • Agreed time off from work

  • Communication – to colleagues, customers etc

  • Equipment changes – name badges, email addresses, electronic profiles, photographs etc

  • Personal changes – name, dress

  • Use of facilities

How someone wants their fellow employees to be told about their transition will vary from person to person. Some may be comfortable explaining it themselves - others may wish a communication to be issued while they are away from the workplace. Someone in a public-facing role may want to move into the back office while they become used to presenting as their new gender, whilst others will be content to carry on in their current jobs. The best advice is to treat the individual as they want to be treated - ask them – they are going to know better than anyone else what they feel comfortable with.

This mantra needs to be kept in mind for one of the potentially more difficult issues - toilets and changing rooms. Do not tip-toe around. Do not suggest using the disabled facility. Remember, in the UK, there is no law saying who can use which bathroom.

Dress codes may be tricky too. A trans person needs to get used to a new way of presenting themselves while they effectively go through adolescence again. And, you need to understand that both male-to-female (MtF) and female-to-male (FtM) can suffer side effects from the hormone treatment which may result in them dressing (and behaving) in ways that are not necessarily age-appropriate.

Employees will need support in taking time off for doctor’s appointments and surgery. Gender Dysphoria is a recognised medical condition and should be treated like any other. Trans people opting for major surgery could need as long as three months off, after having several appointments spread over one to two years. A significant proportion of trans people, however, choose not to have surgery (although many will still have regular appointments for hormone treatment). This all means transitions can vary in length. Only each individual can say when they feel fully settled in one gender.

Legal protection

Whatever someone’s particular gender preference - their name, title and gender will need changing on the personnel records and the IT system as soon as they request it. Under the provisions of the Gender Recognition Action 2004 trans people can obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate once they have been living in their acquired gender for two years. But beware, once a trans person has a GRC, any individual who reveals that person’s old identity could be faced with a £5,000 fine.

It is also worth pointing out the legal position with regards to harrassment and unfair dismissal. As soon as a trans person has made clear their intentions, they instantaneously have the full protection of the Equality Act 2010. Remember also - transition doesn’t have to be in the immediate future, it can be six or 12 months down the line.

Employers need to make sure the individual’s colleagues use their new name and the right pronouns – no ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ or vice versa. Inappropriate questions are also off limits. You wouldn’t ask a woman you had just met - "have you a problem with your weight?" – would you?

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