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Transgender issues test organizations' adaptability

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The “bathroom issue” is becoming a major one with respect to transgender employees, said a speaker at a session on developing a strategy for transgender employees at the Risk & Insurance Management Society's Inc.'s annual conference Monday in San Diego.

In North Carolina, “when I go through the airport, I'm supposed to use the men's room. That ain't going to happen, and it's a problem,” said Victoria E. Nolan, risk and benefits manager at Hillsboro, Oregon-based Clean Water Services, who underwent the transition to a transgender female in 2011. She was referring to recent legislation approved in North Carolina that bars transgenders from using bathrooms that do not correspond to their birth gender.

During the session, Ms. Nolan and Liani J. Reeves, an attorney at Bullard Law in Portland, Oregon, discussed how this and other issues applied to the workplace. Among the suggestions offered was the use of gender-neutral restrooms.

Ms. Reeves discussed how the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Department of Justice and Occupational Safety and Health Administration have all issued policies banning discrimination against transgender individuals.Signs of possible discrimination, she said, include refusing to use a preferred name or revise records to accommodate the new name, and requiring use of single-sex restroom facilities.

“The key here is are you treating a transgender employee differently?” she said.

Employers should review their policies to be sure there is nothing ambiguous or confusing, said Ms. Reeves.

Employers should be prepared for this issue, said Ms. Nolan. “The time to have the conversation is before your first transgender employee arrives,” she said.

Ms. Nolan said some of the issues employers should address include changing the person's name, coverage under health plans, communications within the organization, security clearances in dealing with matters such as budgets, restroom and dressing room use, appearance rules, dress code rules, expectations of employee conduct, manager and employee training and notifying and communicating with clients and customers.

Ms. Nolan said having the first transgender in the workplace can make some employees very uncomfortable.“What I did was say I'd use restrooms further away” that were hardly ever used, while fellow workers became used to the situation, she said. “It only took a couple of weeks.”

Ms. Reeves said obtaining senior management support is crucial. The CEO, she said, “sets the tone of the organization. If your senior management can send a strong message of support … that is going to be key.” Direct supervisors, however, also “need to be on board.”