Case study: Transgender People

Recent debates about the rights of transgender individuals have brought their struggles into the national spotlight. As their unique challenges continue to gain visibility, it becomes increasingly likely that their battles will constitute the next front in the fight for LGBTQA inclusion. While this document will not be exhaustive, it’s a starting point for accounting for the needs of transgender employees in inclusion efforts.

Research shows that 90 percent of transgender people report experiencing discrimination in the workplace, and 26 percent report having lost their jobs due to bias.1 Considering the needs and preferences of transgender people is an important aspect of creating an inclusive corporate culture. An inclusive culture enables employees to be comfortable and safe expressing their true selves, and to feel respected in the workplace, increasing the likelihood of their success. The alternative of staying “in the closet” or enduring biased insults or dismissals can impact an employee’s mental health, productivity, and job satisfaction.

The statistics for untreated gender dysphoria are grim. Over 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide.2 The odds of a transgender person being murdered or raped are more than 10 times that of cisgender people.3 Understand that being transgender is not a choice4  —  it should be treated seriously and should not be ignored.5 No two people are alike in how they experience being transgender. Some view being transgender as a medical condition; others disagree. Some people experience gender dysphoria and transition from male to female, others from female to male, and some choose no medical or surgical transition. Be aware that gender and sexual orientation are two separate issues (see our case study on LGBTQA employees and our case study on nonbinary employees for more information about other needs).

Scenario

One day, your employee Bade walks into your office. While Bade is a good employee and very technically skilled, he says he is making some important life changes and wants to be assured that your workplace will be inclusive and safe for him. Bade tells you he’s been working with a therapist, and has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. He informs you that he intends to transition, will be using the name Edie from now on, and would like your support.

What NOT to do

Don’t panic  —  this is good news for your organization. The odds are statistically high that you’re about to have a drastically happier, more productive employee. Getting the medical treatment she wants, along with social acceptance, means your employee will be able to express herself more genuinely.

Imagine having to hide an aspect of yourself your whole life, playing a role that doesn’t feel right, never being able to use vocal inflections or language that felt natural to you. It would be exhausting, right? Now that Edie won’t have to do that, you can expect more genuine communication.

Do not ask Edie about any medical treatments she may be considering. As with any employee, demanding access to private information with questions about their genitals and other medical matters, including physical changes like breast augmentation or facial hair growth, is invasive and could violate your company’s code of conduct, as well as legal guidelines on harassment. Refrain from referring to Edie by her old name or using male pronouns, and don’t ask Edie to educate you on transgender issues, including how her relationship with her family may or may not change. As her manager, it is your responsibility to learn the relevant issues.

Do not compare Edie to drag queens or female impersonators. This has nothing to do with transgender people, and would be considered extremely rude.

What TO do

It is your job to advocate for Edie, to inform other team members, and to make sure she is treated in a respectful and professional way. Understand that without effort on your part, Edie may be treated in a way that will cause her intense distress. From the outset, make it clear that you want to proactively work with her to provide support.

Ask Edie what pronouns she uses and use them going forward  —  acknowledge that team members may make innocent mistakes at first, and gently remind them by setting an example, e.g. “Edie’s work on that project was really great, I don’t know what we would do without him.” “You’re right, she really is a valuable member of the team.” If other team members repeatedly use the incorrect pronouns or Edie’s former name, pull them aside to have a conversation in which you clearly state that disrespect to Edie will not be tolerated. Update Edie’s personnel records, email address, and business cards as soon as possible to reflect and reinforce the change.

Some transgender people may seek medical transition or surgery to better have their bodies reflect their gender identity. Edie may or may not elect to undergo medical or surgical transition. Should she decide to do so, there should be mechanisms in place to support and accommodate her. Make sure your company’s health plan and disability insurance provides inclusive coverage.6 Work with her as you would with any employee with any issue requiring time off for health care, and refer her to human resources to review her health care benefits and access to time off policies, and determine if she needs assistance filing claims with the company’s insurance company. Many transgender people have difficulty accessing care7 and may need support. To increase transparency and ensure responsibilities and expectations are clearly communicated, you may want to consider establishing gender transition guidelines as part of company policies.

Finally, review your policies and make sure that they are clearly communicated and accessible. Doing so may help alleviate Edie’s concerns and help answer any difficult questions that she and her colleagues may have. Update harassment and anti-discrimination policies to include “gender identity and expression” as protected categories.8 Consider including gender identity and gender expression in any training programs you presently have. Also, adopt a gender neutral dress code that avoids stereotypes and is consistently enforced across genders. Put in place a restroom policy that allows for unrestricted access and use in accordance with gender presentation or the use of unisex facilities  —  single-stall bathrooms in particular could be unisex.

Summary

There is a large population of transgender people working in the tech industry  —  but unfortunately, a lack of education can cause them to be treated inappropriately. While our case study involves a transgender woman, transgender men also face accomodation needs in the workplace, and will most likely feel more comfortable and productive in an explicitly trans-inclusive workplace. You may have more trans employees than you realize, and creating a respectful environment will generally make them feel more comfortable. As an employer, your job is to advocate for them to be treated with dignity and respect, and to promote an inclusive culture for trans employees. After transitioning, transgender people are much happier and more productive and will continue to add tremendous value and perspective to their teams and companies as a whole.

Glossary

Cisgender: Someone whose gender appearance and identity matches their sex as assigned at birth.

Crossdressers/drag queens/female impersonators: Typically cisgender men who dress up as women, often in performance settings. Members of these communities still identify as men and are not transgender. Referring to transgender women with any of these terms is offensive and contributes to negative stereotypes about trans women.

Dead name: someone’s name prior to transition. If you know it, do not use it or share it (deadnaming), and do not refer to it as their “real” name. Consider designing company forms and documentation to eliminate explicit references to legal names and gender unless absolutely necessary  —  for example, payroll forms need an employee’s current legal name, internal memos do not. The company should make it clear that deadnaming is not condoned and is against the company’s inclusive culture.

Misgendering: The use of incorrect pronouns (he, him or she, her) with a transgender person, either intentional or unintentional. This causes intense emotional distress for a transgender person, as it invalidates their gender.

Nonbinary: Existing outside of the gender binary, being neither male nor female (for more information, see our case study on nonbinary employees).

Transgender: An umbrella term for people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. For some, this can lead to gender dysphoria and a need for medical and/or surgical transition. Left unsupported, transgender people have one of the highest suicide rates of any population. However, with adequate care and supportive environments, transgender people are able to live successful lives. Do not use the words “transsexual” or “tranny” to refer to transgender people as these are offensive.

Transition: The medical process of moving from publicly presenting as one gender to another. While there is no standard path, it may involve therapy, hormone replacement, and surgeries so someone’s outward appearance matches their internal feelings.


  1. A survey found that transgender and nonbinary respondents attended college or gained a college degree or higher at 1.74 times the rate of the general population (47 percent versus 27 percent), but experienced twice the rate of unemployment and four times the rate of extreme poverty ($10,000 annually or less).

    Harrison, J., Grant, J., and Herman, J.L. (2011). “Gender Not Listed Here: Genderqueers, Gender Rebels, and OtherWise in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.” LGBQT Policy Journal at the Harvard Kennedy School 2. Retrieved April 2016 from: http://www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/reports/reports/gender_not_listed_here.pdf

  2. Haas, A.P., Rodgers, P.L., and Herman, J.L. (January 2014). “Suicide Attempts Among Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Adults.” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute. Retrieved April 2016 from: http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/AFSP-Williams-Suicide-Report-Final.pdf

  3. Office for Victims of Crime. (June 2014). “Sexual Assault in the Transgender Community: The Numbers.” Retrieved April 2016 from: http://www.ovc.gov/pubs/forge/sexual_numbers.html.

  4. (January 29 2015). “Transgender Kids Show Consistent Gender Identity Across Measures.” Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved April 2016 from: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/transgender-kids-show-consistent-gender-identity-across-measures.html.

  5. Lambda Legal. “FAQ on Access to Transition-Related Care.” Retrieved April 2016 from: http://www.lambdalegal.org/know-your-rights/transgender/transition-related-care-faq.

  6. Transgender Law Center. “Transgender Health Benefits: negotiating for inclusive coverage.” Retrieved April 2016 from: http://transgenderlawcenter.org/issues/health/healthinsurance.

  7. Grant, J.M., Mottet, L.A., Tanis, J., et al. (October 2010). “National Transgender Discrimination Survey Report on Health and Health Care.” National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Retrieved April 2016 from: http://www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/resources_and_tools/ntds_report_on_health.pdf.

  8. US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “What You Should Know About EEOC and the Enforcement Protections for LGBT Workers.” Retrieved April 2016 from: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/wysk/enforcement_protections_lgbt_workers.cfm.