In my last few posts, I have been discussing the agenda for a meeting with co-workers of a transgender employee. As noted there, the meeting should be carefully thought out to insure that co-workers learn what management expects of them. At the meeting, co-workers will likely ask some hard questions that might seem ungracious or critical. Rather than answering in a similar vein, it is crucial that all questions be answered graciously and uncritically. Because gender transition is a new concept to most, it is likely that the perceived tone of the questions is a product of misunderstanding rather than hostility.
In order to be prepared for hard questions, it is a good idea to review some of the issues that may be raised along with potential answers. To that end, here are some "frequently asked questions" that can be difficult to answer. It should be emphasized that these are not the "right" answers, and that some companies may wish to provide different guidance. I also note that the FAQ below is for training of HR personnel, and should not be given in this format to co-workers.
Q: Isn't this solely a private matter?
A: Because of the nature of gender transition on the job, it cannot be kept from those at the workplace. Company deems it best to address the needs of managers and co-workers by providing information on the Company's guidelines in cases of gender transition. Beyond the fact of gender transition, however, it is a private matter.
Q: What if I or others have a religious or moral objection to gender transition?
A: The Company is not asking employees to change their religious or moral opinions. Employees are entitled to their private opinions regarding these guidelines. The Company's policy only prohibits discrimination and harassment, that is, adverse employment actions or hostile working environments.
Q: What is appropriate or inappropriate to ask a co-worker about his/her gender transition, or for an employee in gender transition to disclose?
A: Because most people have not been exposed to gender transition, it is often unclear what is appropriate to ask. Here are some guidelines. There are three levels of information.
- Form of address: if a co-worker is in contact with an employee in gender transition, and is unsure how to address them, it is appropriate to ask how they preferred to be addressed by name (should I call you Susan rather than George?) and what pronoun to use in reference to them (should I refer to you as "he"?).
- Personal questions: if a co-worker is in frequent contact with an employee in gender transition, and there has been a personal relationship involving sharing about other personal matters, it may be appropriate to ask general personal questions about his/her life. General questions such as "how is it going?" and "are things going well?" are both appropriate and comforting. If you ask a question you think is appropriate, and the co-worker indicates that the question seems inappropriate, it would probably be best to refrain from pursuing it.
- Medical information: it is not appropriate to ask co-workers questions about medical condition or procedures. Employees in gender transition have a right to keep medical information confidential. Discussion of medical information at the workplace is a waiver of workplace confidentiality, and Company may take action based on such information. [Note: it is likely that public disclosure of medical information regarding gender transition will lower the comfort level of co-workers and raise objections. Some transgender employees mistakenly think that discussing these matters is a good idea.]
Q: What if I make a mistake in addressing the employee by the wrong name or pronoun?
A: Because most people have not been exposed to gender transition, it is likely that co-workers will make mistakes, such as referring to the employee in gender transition by the wrong name or pronoun, or asking inappropriate questions. Employees in transition should gently correct a co-worker who makes a mistake. It is assumed that mistakes will be less frequent after a reasonable period of time.
Q: What if I prefer not to recognize the employee's "new identity"?
A: Company is not asking employees to change their religious or moral opinions. Employees are entitled to their private opinions regarding the provisions of this guidelines. However, continually addressing the employee by his/her former name or gender identity after a reasonable period of time may constitute a hostile working environment. If brought to the Company's attention, the matter will have to be addressed to ensure that the work environment is not hostile to the employee.
Q: What if co-workers, customers or vendors ask not to work with the employee?
A: The Company does not subject protected employees to adverse employment actions based on his/her personal identity. Therefore, Company cannot honor a request to isolate the employee from certain contacts. Those who choose to work with the Company must respect the Company's policies.