Workplaces should allow all employees to thrive and feel that they belong. For many individuals, however, this is not always the case. According to a 2015 survey, over three-quarters of trans individuals felt they had to take active steps themselves to avoid mistreatment at work, while a Harvard Business Review investigation revealed that 47% of participants experienced discriminatory behaviour at work. There is work to be done.
To explore how business leaders can better support trans employees and create workplaces that are truly inclusive, we hosted a panel discussion and Q&A. The speakers were Caroline Paige, Joint CEO of the LGBT+ military charity Fighting With Pride, and an openly transgender Officer (herein referred to as “the Officer”) currently serving in the British Armed Forces.
“In 1999, I became the first transgender officer to serve in the British Armed Forces,” Caroline said. “Senior leaders had said I could stay and transition. But there was no process in place to explain to people what was going on, and the environment was still hostile to LGBT+ people. So I became visible. I became a target.”
Despite substantial progress in recent decades, there is still much more to be done. The Officer, who is currently in military service, commented: “What I tend to experience is what happens when people think there isn’t a trans person in earshot. The conversations that people have when they think there’s no one ‘like that’ in the room.”
It’s not just about paying lip service to inclusivity. It’s about creating a culture where everyone is welcome, and ensuring that it permeates every level of an organisation.
“Trans people are people,” Caroline added. “We want to do our jobs and live happily and crack on with our lives. If you give people the opportunity to do that, then that’s what they’ll do. And they’ll put a hundred percent plus into the workplace. But it’s a fight. You often have to work harder to prove to people that you’re capable or even just equivalent.”
“When I was experiencing harassment in those early days, the majority of people were allies, they just didn’t say or express that,” said Caroline. “But how do you know if someone is an ally if they’re not showing it?”
The Officer agreed, adding: “All of us, but particularly trans people who are not ‘out’ at work, are constantly trying to decide if we’re in a safe environment. You listen to everything said around you, you try and watch out for clues… It makes you think about every little thing you say and do.”
As business leaders, you need to let the whole organisation know that you stand by your trans employees. “The only reason I have the confidence to say anything is the knowledge that leaders at the top have my back,” said the Officer. “Be a totem, a symbol for inclusion – it is so immensely valuable.”
However, it’s not enough to just say that the workplace is a safe, inclusive space. You have to communicate clearly and help people understand. “In my experience,” Caroline explained, “helping people understand is one of the most powerful ways of influencing inclusion.”
Making a written, formal commitment to include trans employees in the workplace – and then visibly following through on it – lets people at all levels of the organisation know they can trust you.
This can help to give trans employees confidence and security. “The existence of a policy for inclusion was one of the most important contributions to my decision to transition,” explained the Officer. “Particularly in a hierarchical organisation like the Armed Forces, it has the effect of an order, it’s basically the word of God, it’s a weapon to be used on my behalf. It’s protection.”
Although it’s true that policies must be treated as firm rules, they are not immutable. The world is not black and white; it changes and your policies will most likely need to change with it. Policies exist to serve individuals, and in order to do that effectively, you have to be willing to pay attention, to listen and to change policies as needed.
Listening to your trans employees on inclusion can be highly valuable, particularly when drafting or amending policy, but getting involved should be a choice they make, not a burden placed upon them.
“We often have a tendency in the workplace to look to our employees who are in some ways diverse to educate us,” the Officer explained. “But it’s not part of their core duties, it’s additional unpaid labour. You can’t assume that your employees will want to talk about issues that affect them personally. Plenty of your LGBT+ employees won’t want to be a member of your LGBT+ working group, they will just want to be employees, and that’s okay.”
There are numerous charities, resources and organisations that companies can turn to for guidance on how to build a better organisation in practical terms. Stonewall, for example, is invaluable. The Armed Forces policy JSP 889 is also recommended by the speakers.
Data privacy is an important issue in today’s landscape, and it is of particular importance for trans individuals. Under UK employment law, for example, job applicants are required to provide a birth certificate or passport. However, such documents may use an trans individual’s old name. “That’s a risk – they are essentially outing themselves,” explained the Officer. “And not to the nice person they met at the interview who gave them the job, but to a random person they’ve never met in HR who might be careless, or even transphobic.”
A solid policy for inclusion and an extra reassurance during the application process that data will be held in strictest confidence will benefit you greatly. “It suddenly increases the number of trans people who will be happy getting a job with you astronomically. And the thing is, you’d just never know about the people who are put off because you don’t do that. They’ll never reach out and tell you that they didn’t feel comfortable applying because they’re trans and worried about their data. They’ll just quietly slip away.”
People can be worried about saying the wrong thing and might simply avoid talking altogether. “But saying nothing can be just as bad as saying the wrong thing by mistake. It makes you and the person you’re avoiding feel awkward – and it’s really isolating,” said the Officer. “For me, my soldiers keeping up the supportive banter during my transition made my workplace one of the most inclusive I’ve experienced. It made me feel part of the team and it sent a message to everyone else that they were allowed to talk about this.”
“Mistakes do happen,” Caroline added. “But it’s usually clear that it’s happened because someone is trying to communicate with you and just got it a bit wrong. Invasive and hostile questions and comments on the other hand are different.” And that’s where allies can help.
“I strongly believe that a lot of what holds us all back from intervening in difficult situations is not that we don’t want to, but that we don’t feel it’s our place. There’s a sense of embarrassment or overstepping the mark,” the Officer said. “if you’re uncomfortable, then you should get involved. That’s the criteria. You don’t have to possess a characteristic to say you’re unhappy about language in the workplace, or how someone is treated.”
The speakers highlighted useful trainings, like Active Bystander, which teach principles and techniques to help people intervene in difficult situations of all kinds, without escalating them. In essence, good allyship comes down to making sure everyone feels comfortable in the workplace.
Caroline explained: “You should never assume that because someone is nodding or laughing along to something that they are comfortable with it. It might be a defensive or nervous reaction. And with you stepping in, you might give them a safety net. There’s no harm in challenging it. It’s a different opinion, and it’s always good to have those. It’s what helps educate people.”
In global businesses, you will work with companies in nations that are not welcoming to LGBT+ people. The speakers had two key pieces of advice to offer on this topic.
First, you can demonstrate that your business is open and inclusive and be a positive role model. “It’s a powerful thing to do,” Caroline explained.
Secondly, do a risk assessment, particularly if you are sending employees overseas. “Don’t wait until you think those employees are LGBT+,” said the Officer. “You don’t know who your LGBT+ employees are or aren’t. Then give clear guidance about the risks and be honest about what you can do to protect them. You can’t make every environment completely safe and accessible for all employees. Just like you can’t replace every set of stairs with a ramp. But you can be honest about where the ramps are.”
If you would like any guidance on how to make your hiring processes fully inclusive, please contact our D&I specialists and they will be happy to advise you.