Transgender Rights at Work: Creating a Supportive Workplace
Transgender rights have been the subject of much attention over the last few years. Indeed, the issue of gender identity has come dramatically to the forefront of LGBT debates, boosted by a growing grassroots trans rights movement as well as the high profile of famous transgender people including Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning among others. Increasing awareness about the challenges facing transgender people has helped to make the overall climate much more sympathetic, tolerant and understanding than it once was.
It can take many people years to come to terms with their gender identity. The term 'transgender' encompasses more than just those who opt to change their biological gender. Doing so can be a lengthy process involving counselling before the individual can undergo the transition. Despite recent improvements, transgender people continue to experience scepticism and sometimes hostility - including in the workplace. There are, however, legal safeguards intended to provide trans people with protection against discrimination at work.
The Equality Act 2010: how it protects you
Transgender people are provided with a range of protections by the Equality Act 2010. Those who are proposing to, are undergoing or have undergone a gender reassignment process involving the change of physiological or other attributes are protected from discrimination in relation to it. Employers are obliged to ensure that their employees treat their transgender colleagues as favourably as they do their other colleagues.
Those individuals who identify as genderqueer are not specifically covered by the Equality Act, but may be covered by some of its protections in certain situations. For instance, the Equality Act states clearly that trans workers cannot be dismissed on account of their gender. There are of course many reasons why trans and non-trans workers might be legitimately dismissed - including misconduct and substandard performance - but gender identity is not one of them. Trans workers also cannot be denied access to training, promotion or workplace benefits because of their gender identity.
Disclosing your gender status
Coming to terms with gender identity can be very difficult. How you disclose your gender identity to your colleagues and your employer is up to you, and you're under no obligation to inform your colleagues or manager. You may, however, be required to disclose it for insurance or background checks. If you do decide to inform your employer of your gender status, they are obliged to keep that information confidential. Should you opt for reassignment, discuss the matter with management so arrangements can be made for you to take time off when you need it. Whether or not you come out to your colleagues is your decision. It may be a good idea to discuss this with management first, so that you can both work out the best way of doing so.
What employers can do
The most important contribution employers can make to help transgender people is to foster an inclusive and open-minded work environment. Trans employees must be able to feel comfortable in approaching management about whatever issues they feel they need to discuss. A culture of tolerance and frankness can make the transition process that much easier. At the same time, employers must take great care to respect personal boundaries.
When a transgender worker approaches their employer to explain their situation, they must be met with a sympathetic and understanding response. Employers should be prepared to make allowances when trans workers need time off for counselling or surgery - this is also a requirement of the Equality Act. Ask the individual concerned how they want to be addressed and what their preferred gender pronouns are, as well as how they intend to break the news to their colleagues if they intend to do so.
Employers must also be aware that the Equality Act 2010 stipulates that employees who take time off to undergo gender reassignment must not be treated less favourably than their colleagues. While employers are not legally obliged to provide paid sick leave, they may do depending on the broader company policy.
Tackling discrimination at work
It's also the responsibility of employers to ensure that colleagues are respectful and tolerant towards transgender workmates. Despite the advances of recent years, there's still much ignorance surrounding gender issues. Malicious gossip and cruel jokes aimed at trans people are unfortunately still commonplace. Employers should take an active role in ensuring that such treatment is not tolerated. Allegations of discrimination must be treated respectfully and in a manner which gives both sides a fair hearing so that the full facts can be established.
A clear equal opportunities policy can do a great deal to prevent discrimination in the workplace. Minorities know what protection they're entitled to and how they can defend their rights, while others know what sort of conduct is expected of them and what penalties they'll receive should they fail to meet those standards.
Diversity training can foster greater understanding between different groups of people and encourage engagement, while larger organisations can encourage the formation of LGBT networks to provide mutual support. Be careful to ensure that existing policies don't inadvertently discriminate against trans colleagues.Everyone has a right to feel comfortable at work, and to access support when they need it. If you've experienced discrimination at work on account of your gender identity, the law is on your side. Don't be afraid to take advantage of the protections it offers.