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This is not legal advice, which can only be given by an attorney admitted to practice law in your jurisdiction after hearing all of the facts and circumstances in a particular case.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Transition Story #2

Continuing the series of case histories of gender transition in the workplace, here is Transition Story #2:

I work for a small ($300MM sales) company, with about 1,500 employees (125 at my location) publicly traded on the NYSE, with multiple locations in the US and Europe. I was hired in April of 1999, and I am now Director of Purchasing.

I requested a meeting in September of 2002 with my boss, the Director of Operations, and our corporate HR Manager (who happens to be based at my location). I presented them with a letter indicating my intention to transition sometime around the end of 2002, gave them a packet of materials about transsexuality and transitioning on the job, and told them I expected my news was in the top three most interesting things they'd encountered that day.

My boss's reaction was that he didn't see that my transition had any relation to my ability to do my job. The HR rep, to her credit, firstcalled our top corporate HR person (NOT our lawyer!!). Her immediate concerns were about maintaining my insurance, name change, Social Security, etc. Based on my experience, I highly recommend that anyone deciding to transition on the job give the employer lots of time to digest it. I left the actual tranition date vague and tried throughout the process to be flexible and work with my employer. I decided that I had nothing to lose and much to gain by not backing my employer into a corner.

What my employer did right: They rearranged an existing schedule for anti-harassment training so that our location would receive it before my transition was announced. They did their homework before advising top management of my plans. As I recall, they notified top management a week or two after I told them. They kept it a secret for three months until we finally announced it in early January of 2003. They called meetings with groups of co-workers on the big day and explained what was going on (I offered to attend these meetings but my employer asked me not to). We allowed a week between the announcement and my first day on the job as a female to allow co-workers to approach me as my old self with any questions.

Our Division General Manager sent a letter to all company employees worldwide that same day, and particularly reminded everyone of our company policies against discrimination and harassment. My boss sent a letter to our suppliers with the same message. After my transition, I participated in a corporate-wide sourcing initiative involving numerous meetings and dinners along with our COO and CEO, both of whom treated me with respect.

What my employer did "less than right:" They mishandled the bathroom issue, and told me I could not use the ladies' room. There is a unisex toilet near my office so it wasn't inconvenient, but the principle was wrong. When I visited another of our locations they made special arrangements to show me where the unisex toilet was (a LONG way from our meeting room, which had a ladies' room across the hall).

It wasn't until I had my surgery in September of 2005 that I was allowed to use the ladies' room. By then, the only place on the planet where I couldn't/didn't use the ladies' room was at my own place of work. Adding insult to injury, while I was out on medical leave they cut the ladies' room down from three stalls to one, and added a new unisex toilet next to it. The stated reason was to provide needed facilities for males in that area, but the real reason was to give one woman (an ultra-conservative Christian with major concerns about me) a way not to meet me in the ladies' room. [To this day, three and a half years later, she refuses to write or speak my name. Seems like management tacitly approved her attitude.]

My major message for HR folks: Don't underestimate the bathroom issue. It will be the toughest one you face, likely because of a few. Exiling the transitioning employee only encourages their discriminatory attitude, and then problems afterwards will be more difficult to address. My suggestion: if there's a unisex toilet handy, let those with concerns know that it is available for use.

Now here's a strange fact: Despite the fact that my company has handled things, on the whole, very successfully regarding my gender identity, they seem to be reluctant to memorialize this success by including "gender identity" in the non-discrimination policy. I've provided our corporate HR person on at least two occasions with language and links regarding implementing a corporate policy addressing gender identity and expression, I've gotten only "thanks, we'll look into it."

(If you'd like to see the previous case history in this series, click here for Transition Story #1)

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