Transitioning in the workplace can be a nightmare for many trans people, but some employers understand that diversity is good for business.
Discrimination, harassment and dismissal are all things that an employee who announces they are going to transition from one sex or gender to another can expect to experience in the workplace. A 2006 report in the UK, Engendered Penalties: Transgender and Transsexual.
People’s Experiences of Inequality and Discrimination, found that the workplace “affords a poor experience for many trans people”. The report, co-authored by Stephen Whittle, Vice-President of lobby group Press for Change, found that more than 10 per cent experienced being verbally abused and 6 per cent were physically assaulted. “As a consequence of harassment and bullying a quarter of trans people will feel obliged to change their jobs,” it said.
Fortunately there are employers that embrace diversity, recognising it’s good for business, and go all out to ensure that trans people feel valued and are protected against unsavoury behaviour from other staff.
One such company is IBM. The IT giant has had several staff transition, the most recent being Business Development Manager, Chrystie Klein, who is based in the firm’s Melbourne office. “I count my blessings,” she tells SX. “My transition was amazing.”
Chrystie informed her manager, Darren, about her intention to transition over coffee one morning before work. “I was quite nervous, but Darren’s reaction was very positive and encouraging,” she says. “He didn’t bat an eyelid and congratulated me on how I’d handled it. He really put me at ease.”
Chrystie was then put in touch with the human resources (HR) partner who was in charge of managing the transition process, along with Darren and Chrystie’s sales manager, Scott, who is based in Canberra. “We determined a time that would be least disruptive to the business, which was January,” Chrystie explains. “One of the recommendations from my sales manager was I should move into a new sales territory so when I came back in my affirmed gender I would have none of my old clients to deal with and explain this to. I really appreciated he’d thought about it and proposed it as it was in my best interest.”
IBM hired a counsellor who specialises in gender identity issues to oversee the transition, particularly how it was relayed to other staff. A meeting was organised between Chrystie, her managers and employees she worked closest with. Invitations to attend were sent out along with an information package outlining what was happening and how staff were expected to behave under the company’s diversity policy. A personal letter from Chrystie was also included, in which she explained why transitioning was important to her. The meeting was led by the counsellor and staff were able to ask questions. At this point Chrystie was still presenting as male. She then took a week off and returned as female.
“The reactions were amazing,” she enthuses. “IBM is mainly filled with family people with little or no experience of transgenderism, but they were great. I got so much encouragement, especially from my female colleagues who quickly adopted me as one of the girls.”
The success of Chrystie’s transition is due to the company’s policy of inclusion, says Robyn Sumner, Diversity Program Manager for IBM Australia. “Diversity for us is making sure we have a broad mix of people in our workforce and making sure everyone feels included. It’s important that people who transition feel valued. We see our diversity strategy as a competitive edge. Employees’ differences lead to diversity of thought which is required for the innovation we need for our clients.”
Other employers also recognise that they could lose the skills a trans person brings to the company if they don’t handle that person’s transition well. “I am so grateful that my bosses understood the gravity of my situation and that they were so understanding, making me feel that I was important to them and the company,” says Stefanie Imbruglia, who transitioned from male to female while working as a long-term contractor of nearly 10 years for Sydney Airport as an architectural consultant.
Stefanie initially met with upper management, armed with folders for each person that contained material about gender dysphoria, the organisation’s own anti-discrimination policy and even photos of Stefanie as female dressed in ‘work mode’. Although her bosses were “shocked” they were positive and explained the news to staff and external clients while Stefanie was on leave. As with Chrystie, the reactions from her colleagues were overwhelmingly positive. “Professionally, it feels like nothing has changed,” she says. “My work is still the same. I still do what I need to do and my clients are happy.”
Josie Emery’s transition was a very public one. Three years ago as the then Director of Literature at Australia Council for the Arts, she was ‘outed’ in The Australian. She decided to use her example to promote the organisation’s equity policy. After meeting with her boss, the CEO and Director of HR, Josie took aside each of her team members and key contacts and told them individually about her intention to transition before the rollout of the organisational and client announcement.
Unlike Chrystie or Stefanie who presented as their affirmed gender very soon after the announcement to staff, Josie gave her colleagues three months to get used to the idea. While some expressed shock and amusement or “retreated and took a while to process the news”, reactions were mostly supportive. “I expected the worst and prepared for it and then I got such overwhelming support I was quite overcome,” Josie says.
If there is a common theme to all these stories it’s that if upper management unreservedly declare their support for a trans person to transition in the workplace – and make it clear that bullying or harassment will be not be tolerated – the transition can be a positive experience for all involved.