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How to make your office truly welcoming to transgender and gender non-conforming workers

high heels in corporate setting
Reuters/Ruben Sprich
Make no assumptions.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Last week, 53 American companies stood up for transgender rights by filing an amicus brief in support of Gavin Grimm, a trans high school student from Virginia who has taken on his school board over its bathroom access rules. Before Grimm’s case was turned down by the Supreme Court and sent back to a lower court, he won symbolic backing from some of the largest, most powerful companies in the US, including Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Intel.

In the “friend of the court” filing, the corporations underlined their own inclusive workplace policies and pledged to protect all forms of gender expression. They embraced these policies out of respect for their trans employees, the companies said—and because “diversity and inclusion are good for business.” And they pointed out ”that LGBT equality also makes them stronger in the global economy.”

There’s plenty of evidence to support that assertion, but trans advocates say there’s a long way to go before most companies provide a truly trans-friendly environment for workers. Despite passing references to trans rights in company anti-discrimination policies, the 9-to-5 remains an intimidating place for those who don’t identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, or don’t conform to one gender.

“In the workplace, the ‘L’ and the ‘G’ are well talked about, the ‘B,’ less so, and the ‘T,’ hardly ever,” says Emma Cusdin, a London-based human resources director at the global insurance company Aviva, who is also co-founder of Trans*formation, a networking group dedicated to trans professionals.

A 2007 report published by the Equalities Review, a UK government-appointed body that investigated discrimination in the country, 42% of people who are not living permanently in the gender they identify with say that work—or, more precisely, the fear of losing it—is preventing them from expressing themselves fully.

It’s high time that changed. Of course, trans-friendly workplaces won’t solve all the problems facing the trans community: The most urgent concerns remain high suicide rates, homelessness, and the threat of transphobic violence, points out Lou Himes, a psychologist in New York whose QuIPP center specializes in counseling for trans clients and training for organizations. “In the research, we’re still at the level of ‘How do we keep people alive?’” Himes says.

But for obvious reasons, making workplaces more welcoming can make a real difference in people’s lives—offering a trans or gender non-conforming person not only financial stability, but also a sense of community, and recognition for their talents. Discrimination, whether subtle or overt, is rampant, and in much of the world, including some US states, trans people do not have legal employment protections, Cusdin points out. As a result, some trans adults find themselves unemployed, underemployed, or forced to jump from gig to gig. That’s why making trans-inclusiveness a priority can be a serious, potentially life-saving matter.

There has been progress at large multinationals in the last two to three years, Cusdin says, partially thanks to an increased trans awareness. Since its founding two years ago, Trans*formation has seen constant demand for its training services and networking events. Companies call Cusdin to say, “We want to make sure we’re truly inclusive. What do we need to do?’”

We asked Cusdin, Himes, and other advocates the same question. Here’s what they told us.

Become an ally (and understand why)

By now, we know that LGBT ally programs are a good thing. In a 2013 survey by the Center for Talent Innovation, a New York-based think tank, nearly a quarter of LGBT workers who responded said that having a strong network of allies at work convinced them to come out. Being a trans-inclusive ally can be particularly meaningful, advocates say, because the spectrum of gender expressions that fit under the trans label are not universally understood or accepted.

Pips Bunce, a London-based engineering director within the Global Markets Technology group at Credit Suisse, who is out as straight, married and gender-fluid at the investment bank—presenting as Pippa some days and Phil other days—is a tireless promoter of trans inclusivity at work and in the company’s LGBT Ally program. Bunce has led training seminars, co-created a comprehensive employee guide book, and starred in the company’s “Focus on Trans” training video, now shared outside the firm.

An ally’s most important duty is to “challenge and address any inappropriate banter and discussions you hear,” says Bunce. “Ten years ago, people may have referred to ‘crossdressers’ or ‘transsexuals.’ Not everyone is up to speed on the terminology. So have a quiet chat with the person and say, did you realize you were using the wrong word?” Bunce notes that sometimes this type of interference has more power coming from an observer, rather than someone directly involved.

Allies also ought to remain visibly active in their role: Show up for their ally group’s social events, read any LGBT Ally newsletters, and advertise their membership. For a trans employee who may not feel safe or comfortable, Bunce explained, something as simple as a sticker on a cubicle wall can send a welcoming signal.

Recruiting and educating other co-workers is also a part of the ally’s obligation, Bunce says: The burden of raising consciousness should not be left to the trans employee alone.

To this end, one might consider bookmarking workplace-specific trans-inclusive guides and “gingerbread person,” a graphic that illustrates the myriad ways sexual identity, sexual anatomy, gender expression and sexual attraction can combine and exist on different scales. Cusdin calls it a brilliant tool to explain the “beauty and wonder of gender expression.”

Get pronouns right

It may seem obvious, but one essential, powerful way to respect a trans colleague or employee is to use the pronoun they identify with, even it’s a struggle to adjust to at first.

“Our rule is always ask people what they want to be called,” Cusdin says, “and be cool about it, and be cool if it changes.” Then practice and practice until it becomes natural, she suggests. (In one language exercise, she asks executives to begin her seminar by describing their weekend with gender-neutral pronouns.)

Of course, mistakes will happen, Himes tells Quartz, whether a person is still adjusting to a coworker’s new identity, getting used to the singular they, or encountering “ze” or “xe” for the first time. But don’t ignore your mistakes, Himes says. “Apologize and move on.”

“People often feel unconscious shame next to someone who isn’t conforming to a gender norm,” they add, “so they want to hide and pretend they didn’t just say ‘she’ or ‘he.’” For a trans person who deals with micro aggressions and awkwardness all day long, work should be a refuge, not a place to absorb additional slights.

Cusdin also counsels patience for the person transitioning at work. And she suggests they see it as partly their job “to be a salesperson,” and take their manager and colleagues with them. “You’ve had months or years to adjust to this change,” she says. “For them, it’s new. Give them time.”

Challenge male-female norms

For progressive companies, the bathroom discussion has been settled: People should choose the bathroom they want to use, and single-stall and gender neutral bathrooms should be available.

Still, the gender binary sneaks into work culture at every level, whether surfacing on official or ad hoc forms, or in the playful call for men’s and women’s teams at company picnics. It’s constant, says Jessica Joseph, Himes’ partner at QuIPP and a doctoral student of psychology at The New School in New York.

The advice from experts: Press HR to address all the ways a gender non-conforming person can be excluded or not represented in the company’s “story” or operations. Ask why there’s no visible trans employee in recruiting materials. Question the need for titles like Mr. and Ms. (let alone Miss and Mrs.) in company and client paperwork—especially on forms for something like an employee review, says Joseph, where the power dynamic might silence a gender non-conforming employee.

“These things might seem small,” Joseph explains, “but they can be painful. They’re constant reminders of how you don’t fit into the office ‘vibe.’”

Recognize that you’re probably doing some things wrong

Himes has found that it’s often a well-meaning colleague who asks grossly inappropriate questions of a trans employee. “The transgender body is extremely objectified in our culture,” they say. “All bodies are, but the trans body especially, because it’s a curiosity.”

Trans people might be questioned about past or future surgery, their clothes, or what was it like to grow up as a boy or girl—questions out of bounds for most in an office environment. And they are the only people who are commonly asked about their genitalia. “Someone might do it in a tip-toey way, as if they know it’s not really appropriate to ask,” Himes says. “But they do anyway.”

For a trans-inclusive policy to ring true, employees need to be aware of their implicit biases about transgender people and gender itself. Do they expect someone to behave differently because they’re expressing differently or have transitioned? Do they assume that all trans people’s experiences are the same?

Asking appropriate questions isn’t complicated. “Try ‘How can I help you? How am I impacting you?’” says Himes. “Trans people need others to be curious about their experiences, not their bodies.”

Compliments, too, should stay within the boundaries of polite social norms. “It’s about being respectful, being positive, but being careful with your language,” Cusdin explains. “So that means avoiding all the comments like, ‘You look amazing, even for a man.’ No, it’s ‘You look amazing.’ Leave it at that.”

It’s generally inappropriate for colleagues to constantly reference a colleague’s trans past or former gender expression, or to disclose that someone has transitioned.

Be proactive

The policy-driven strategies that lay the foundation for a trans-positive workspace have to come from the top: Human resources departments must coordinate with transgender employees to make sure their chosen name and legal name are used in the appropriate systems, for instance, or that their privacy is protected, and that the gender markers that could impact health insurance coverage are correctly noted.

Whether or not there are employees on the payroll who are out as trans or gender non-conforming, managers must let employees know where the company stands. “They have to say, ‘It’s okay to talk about this,’” Himes says. “Otherwise it’s unlikely that an employee is going to approach HR first.”

LGBT inclusiveness is indeed good business, as the US companies asserted last week, partially because it improves retention rates. The market also rewards diversity, as do influential corporate equality indices. What’s more, employees who can live true to themselves are 20% to 30% more productive, according to research from Human Rights Campaign, because they spend less time trying to hide their identity. And happier workers are generally more loyal and productive, and more diversity leads to higher levels of creativity and innovation.

Still, Cusdin worries that young trans people, who have felt empowered to express their true selves at a young age—in schools and colleges, or even on Facebook, where they can chose from more than 70 gender options—will find themselves out of step in the binary workplace, and either reject it or go back into the closet. For most employers, the pressure is on to quickly catch up.

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