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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, August 11, 2006

Step 4: Co-worker training

Previously, I blogged about a four-step mediation process to be initiated upon notice to the organization that an employee is going to transition. We're ready to start talking about the fourth step -- talking to coworkers about the transition. There's a lot to consider here, so it will take a few posts to cover all the material.

First, it should be noted that this "training" is not intended to address co-workers' moral opinions about transgender issues, an issue that is always just beneath the surface. Rather, its main purpose is to apprise employees of the Company's policy regarding gender transition in the workplace. This drives the agenda for the meeting, and guides the presenter's actions when it comes to addressing sensitive questions.

I see three purposes for the training: 1) explain the Company's Gender Transition Guidelines and appropriate norms of employee conduct, 2) to introduce attendees to the concept of gender transition and to advise them of what changes to expect in this particular situation, and 3) advise where to obtain guidance or voice a complaint.

Some people may wonder why co-worker training is required at all, as sexuality is a private matter. While it is true that sexuality is private, to the extent that the employee in transition is appearing in public in a different gender role, his/her transition is a public event. Company employees must be apprised of the Company's policies and expected norms and have a forum to express questions and concerns. All other aspects of the employee's private life will remain private. While the old and new name of the employee will be revealed, the session is not a referendum on this employee or his/her personal choices, nor is Company taking any position on the employee's personal choices.

The training referred to here is not general diversity training. Although I think it a good idea for general diversity training to be held annually, and such training should include some discussion of transgender policy, a separate series of sessions are needed when there is a gender transition in the workplace. Because this is a new area for most people, co-workers will require additional guidance when the situation involves them directly. However, this is not company-wide, but only applicable to those co-workers in frequent workplace contact with the employee in transition. The Gender Transition Leader will have to make a determination of which co-workers should be included in the trainings.

Due to the sensitive balance between information and privacy, special sensitivity must be shown in the scheduling and conduct of this meeting. It should come after the Company and the employee in transition have agreed on the transition plan, so that co-workers can be given correct information about what changes to expect and when they will occur. If the transition plan has not yet been agreed upon, then co-workers can only receive general information, or worse, wrong information, and sharp questions about issues such as facilities usage and dress codes may be expected. However, if strict confidentiality is not observed, then word of the impending transition will leak out, and may force the timeline forward, requiring co-worker trainings to take place much earlier than expected, and perhaps before the Company is ready to do so.

If the Company chooses to use an outside expert to present information to co-workers, an agenda should be arranged in advance, and the expert should be given a copy of the Company policies governing gender transition. All too often, outside experts present information that is not appropriate in a corporate setting. Medical experts may have a standard presentation appropriate to a medical audience, including slides of bloody surgical procedures or naked genitalia. In addition, they may make assumptions about what Company policy is or should be, and make statements at odds with Company decisions. If the outside expert says that an employee in transition should be allowed to use whatever bathroom they want, and that whoever says different is a neanderthal troglodyte, and the Company has made a different decision, sparks are going to fly.

The session leader should be prepared for questions that seem ungracious or critical. Such questions should be answered with sensitivity, even if the meeting leader believes that the question is malicious or mean-spirited. The purpose is not to convince everyone of the morality or propriety of gender transition, and employees are not being asked to change their personal opinions. They are being asked only to follow the Company's guidelines in order to create a harmonious and productive work environment. At the same time, questions and concerns of the employees must be encouraged, because if not addressed directly at this meeting, they will surface in suboptimal ways. For this reason, the meeting should be held without the employee in transition. The presence of that employee will make it more difficult for co-workers to voice their questions and concerns for fear of appearing ungracious or critical.

A few other points: Each session should include no more than 20-25 attendees. If the meeting is too large, co-workers will be reluctant to ask questions and voice concerns. The session should not be optional, because it is generally those most in need of such a session who will opt out. If an invitee cannot attend due to scheduling problems, the GTL should speak to them privately to review the basics and see if they have any questions or concerns.

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