Transgender in the Workplace

A Career & Resource Guide for Employees & Employers
Meet the Experts
Cadyn Cathers,

Psychological Assistant and Interim Co-Director of the LGBTQ Specialization at Antioch University Los Angeles

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Dr. Kristie Overstreet,

Clinical Sexologist and Psychotherapist

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Despite major wins within the LGBTQ community in recent years, many transgender and non-conforming gender individuals feel there’s still a lot more to do in the fight for equality both in and out of the office. This helpful guide is for transgender workers, from new graduates just entering the workforce to seasoned working professionals, as well as employers and hiring managers. Learn more about current transgender workplace rights, how to navigate some of the biggest workplace and job hunting concerns, and see what employers can do to lay the foundation for safe and inclusive work environments.

Transgender Workplace Rights

Transgender and non-conforming gender (TGNC) individuals are protected by policies and laws intended to eliminate harassment and discrimination. While some protections are at the federal level, many states, counties, and cities have their own policies in place. “Protection laws differ from state to state, so it’s important that you check the state in which you work,” notes Dr. Kristie Overstreet, a clinical sexologist and psychotherapist who specializes in transgender identities.

According to the Transgender Law Center, as of June 2017, the following states have strong or medium anti-harassment and discrimination laws in place:

  • California

  • Colorado

  • Connecticut

  • New Jersey

  • Delaware

  • New Mexico

  • Hawaii

  • New York

  • Illinois

  • Oregon

  • Iowa

  • Pennsylvania

  • Maine

  • Rhode Island

  • Maryland

  • Utah

  • Massachusetts

  • Vermont

  • Minnesota

  • Washington

  • Nevada

  • District of Columbia

In addition to state and local laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on sex, race, color, national origin or religion. Employees who feel this law is being violated may complain to the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

EEOC’s role is to investigate reports, arrange mediation, broker a settlement, sue an employer or give permission to bring about the person’s own lawsuit, explains Overstreet. She goes on to say that Title VII has had the broadest impact on transgender people. A significant limitation to the law, however, is that it only applies to employers with 15 or more employees. “This act and the EEOC interpretation of it have helped many transgender people, but there’s still much work to do on the city, state, and federal levels to protect transgender people,” says Overstreet.

While Title VII has had the most far-reaching effects, there are several other federal laws that also protect transgender individuals and their workplace rights. These include:

  • Executive Order 13672 makes anti-LGBTQ discrimination by federal contractors illegal. Transgender and non-conforming gender individuals who work for a company that contracts with the federal government benefit from this protection.

  • Executive Order 13087 makes it illegal to discriminate against federal employees due to sexual orientation or gender identity.

  • Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 makes discrimination against employees based on “conduct which does not adversely affect the performance” of employees unlawful. Gender identity is included in this description.

Other protections are also in the works, but it’s unclear what the results will be. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013 (ENDA) has been suggested as a means to provide further protection for LGBTQ employees. It’s currently on hold, however, as negotiations continue.

Legal Support & Assistance

TGNC individuals who feel they have been discriminated again in the workplace or during the hiring process have several resources to turn to for information and legal advice and/or assistance. If you’re in need of support or just want more information, try looking into the following organizations and programs:

  • American Civil Liberties Union

    The ACLU offers an array of resources that can help TGNC individuals navigate their rights under state and federal law. It promises to “fight government-sanctioned discrimination” and stand for the rights of all transgender individuals. The best way to advocate for yourself, notes ACLU, is knowing and understanding your legal rights. The organization’s website offers an excellent FAQ section.q

  • Human Rights Campaign

    The Human Rights Campaign is a foundation that advocates for full inclusion and equality for TGNC people and other underrepresented groups. They offer myriad resources on TGNC rights, violence prevention, transgender healthcare and applicable legal resources.

  • Lambda Legal

    Lambda Legal is nonprofit national organization devoted to obtaining “full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and everyone living with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.”

  • National Center for Lesbian Rights

    The National Center for Lesbian Rights fights for marriage equality and the rights of all LGBTQ and TGNC individuals. As a nonprofit, public-interest law firm, NCLR takes on cases that can affect the foundational rights of LGBTQ individuals, on issues such as asylum and immigration, federal legislation and policy, housing, and employment for TGNC people.

  • National Center for Transgender Equality

    The NCTE created a Trans Legal Services Network to help TGNC individuals navigate the legal processes involved in changing their names and dealing with unlawful harassment or discrimination. The network brings together over 60 organizations that serve trans communities.

  • Transgender American Veterans Association

    Transgender veterans face the dual challenges of dealing with gender identity issues as well as those resulting from military combat. The Transgender American Veterans Association works to prevent medical discrimination against transgender individuals. They also keep on top of current law and VA regulations and policy concerning treatment.

  • Transgender Law Center

    The Transgender Law Center offers access to a legal resistance network consisting of volunteer attorneys committed to protecting the rights on TGNC people. TGNC individuals can turn to the Transgender Law Center for help with discrimination cases and deciphering complex legal issues.

  • Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund

    The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund was created to help end discrimination based on gender identity and expression. The fund works exclusively to advocate for equality for transgender people “through public education, test-case litigation, direct legal services, and public policy efforts.” The firm’s “Name Change Project” also helps TGNC individuals through the processes involved in legally changing their names.

It’s also valuable for TGNC people to seek assistance at a local level. “The organizations above are a great place to start, but sometimes they can be overloaded, as they are dealing with cases from the entire country,” explains Cadyn Cathers, psychological assistant and interim co-director of the LGBTQ specialization at Antioch University Los Angeles. Instead, TGNC people may have more luck getting personalized assistance from local LGBTQ organizations or lawyers that offer support on everything from legal name changes to problems with domestic violence. Local law schools are another good avenue; many offer free or sliding-scale legal aid services to members of the community. Employed TGNC individuals also have the option of reaching out to their companies’ human resources departments for guidance on various workplace issues, notes Dr. Overstreet.

Job Hunting & Interviewing

Looking for a job comes with a long list of stresses for anyone, but TGNC individuals face some unique challenges. There’s everything from uncertainty about how they’ll be treated in an interview to the risk of blatant discrimination.

Job-seekers can reduce their anxiety and improve their chances for success if they arm themselves with accurate information and get outside support if needed. Here are some of the main challenges TGNC individuals will likely encounter during a job search, along with expert advice on what may help:

  • If you go by a different name, do you use your legal name on your resume?

    One of the biggest challenges TGNC individuals face during the job search is deciding what name to put on their resume. If they list their legal name and their appearance doesn’t match in the eyes of the interviewer, it can create an uncomfortable situation. The reverse also holds true—if they list their preferred name but have not physically transitioned.

    There’s no cut-and-dry answer, but Overstreet points out that whatever decision you make for your resume, you still must use your legal name if you’re hired. Employers must submit a legal name for the purposes of taxes, workers’ compensation, payroll, social security and insurance. That’s all on paper, however, and interpersonal communications need not feel awkward. “A person can ask the employer to use their preferred name and not their legal name to address them at all times,” she adds.

  • Should you disclose your true identity?

    “Whether or not to disclose one’s identity as a transgender or gender non-conforming person is a personal decision,” says Cathers. Neither option is right or wrong – it’s all about what makes the most sense for that individual in that specific job. TGNC people should feel empowered to make whatever choice is best for them.

  • How do you know if an employer is TGNC-friendly?

    While times have changed, it’s still a reality that being trans can be a problem in some workplaces. “Real discrimination is a huge problem for TGNC folks, and particularly TGNC people of color,” notes Cathers.

    It can difficult to sift through employers to find those that are trans-friendly, but there are some key steps to take. At the local level, ask family and friends in the area for recommendations of employers who welcome TGNC employees. Look for career fairs aimed directly at the LGBTQ and TGNC communities. Do your own online research to find out about prospective employers before submitting applications. If an employer is inclusive, they typically go out of their way to make their stance known.

    Dr. Overstreet also notes that the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) publishes a yearly Equality Index that lists the best companies for LGBTQ individuals to work for. Applicants can consult the list to find potential employers, or to check whether a particular company is included.

  • How do you overcome fear of discrimination?

    Discrimination of TGNC individuals is a real workplace issue, but despite the “bad apple” employers, there are many inclusive companies that make concerted efforts to welcome qualified workers, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s natural for TGNC individuals to envision worst-case scenarios, but their fears may not be realized. “Some TGNC people are so afraid of real discrimination that they may avoid interviewing at companies/agencies that are not LGBTQ-specific,” says Cathers. “This may limit them in the hiring process, as there might be a non-LGBTQ-specific company with a TGNC friendly manager or HR department.” In his experience as a therapist, Cathers says he has been surprised by both extremes—how discriminatory some firms are and how TGNC-friendly others are.

    TGNC individuals can take comfort in the fact that there are legal recourses in place to protect them in cases of outright discrimination, which may help alleviate some anxiety during the hiring process. However, it’s certainly not a given that those resources will be needed. The bottom line? “Be open to a pleasant surprise,” says Cathers.

Job Hunting Resources & Services

If you need some help or guidance with your job search, consider taking a look at the following resources:

  • A Trans Person’s Guide to Job-Hunting, Insurance, and Retirement

    In this article from BloombergBusinessweek, get firsthand insight on finding a job, building a career and navigating issues like healthcare and retirement as a trans person.

  • Center for Gender Sanity

    The Center for Gender Sanity offers resources for trans individuals searching for employment. They also link to available jobs that could be good fits for TGNC people.

  • FAQs for Trans* Job Seekers

    Rochester Institute of Technology’s Office of Career Services and Cooperative Education offers insight for trans people seeking employment in nearly any industry in this helpful FAQ.

  • Trans Employment Program

    Located in the San Francisco Bay area, this program helps connect trans individuals with employment at inclusive and harmonious workplaces in numerous industries.

  • Transgender Job Bank

    This resource offers links to available jobs with trans-friendly employers.

Coming Out in the Workplace

Coming out in the workplace can be stressful and problematic for LGBTQ individuals, particularly those who are trans. It’s not simply how to reveal this information that’s worrisome, but also the more fundamental question of what the consequences may be.

Deciding whether to come out as transgender at work is a deeply personal issue. While some TGNC individuals may feel compelled to let everyone know their authentic selves, others may desire to maintain more privacy about their personal lives.

Ultimately, there are no right or wrong answers about how and when to come out at work. Some trans individuals may never decide to share that part of their identity in the workplace, and that’s perfectly okay, too. For those who choose to come out, the pros and cons may include:

Rewards

  • Reducing stress over hiding your real identity

  • Building closer relationships with workplace allies

  • Becoming a role model for other trans people

Risks

  • Risk of disapproval or discomfort from fellow workers

  • Risk of workplace discrimination, including loss of employment or exposure to verbal harassment or physical violence

If you’ve made the decision that coming out is the best move, Cathers and Overstreet offer some specific tips that might help with the transition:

  • Find your allies

    Ask yourself who’s going to be in your corner, says Cathers. “Is it your co-workers? Your boss? HR?” Knowing you’ve got supporters will make potentially dealing with negative reactions from other co-workers much more tolerable.

  • Learn about your workplace policies

    Many companies have formal, written policies in place to protect LGTBQ employees. Find out if you’ve got the paper to back you up—or not—since the best way to protect and advocate for yourself is to understand your workplace rights and procedures.

  • Reach out to human resources for help

    TGNC people who feel comfortable with their workplace human resources department may want to consider reaching out to them for help, notes Overstreet. A trained and compassionate HR representative may be able to help develop a plan for coming out. Be sure to involve your supervisor, says Overstreet, to decide how to reveal the information and who to include in the initial meetings. “There are many different options and it will depend on the decision of you, HR and your supervisor.”

  • Request workplace training

    Proactive HR departments may be able to connect their companies with organizations that conduct workshops on workplace laws and sensitivity training. Some workplaces also have a therapist or other professional facilitate a conversation to allow co-workers to ask questions so that the TGNC employee doesn’t need to answer inappropriate questions or become the token TGNC person, notes Cathers.

  • Transition as slowly as you need to

    There is no ideal timeline for a TGNC person to transition publicly at work. However, it can make the TGNC person more comfortable if it happens gradually. “Suddenly dressing as your authentic gender on Monday when you’ve been dressing in the attire assigned to your gender at birth since your first day of work may be a shock to your co-workers and may create an uncomfortable situation,” explains Cathers. “Some people start small, with some of their clothing or hair for example, to give themselves and their co-workers time to adjust.” Keep in mind, however, that these “baby steps” aren’t for the psychological benefit of co-workers; rather, they’re for the TGNC person. Giving others time to adjust to changes makes it less likely the TGNC person will experience discomfort or disapproval.

  • Reach out for help

    TGNC people often struggle to determine when or if to come out, and their answer may change from one week to the next. It often helps to talk things through with a therapist to get independent, professional advice and support. “The right time to come out is when you are ready,” says Cathers. “A TGNC-affirmative therapist can help you figure that out, as well as how to go at a speed that feels comfortable.”

For Employers:
7 Steps for Creating an Inclusive Work Environment

Of course, employers wouldn’t intentionally create a hostile work environment for trans employees, but that’s often the end result simply due to a lack of education. Many employers fail to be proactive when it comes to helping TGNC employees feel comfortable, welcomed and accepted at work. Fortunately, there are several concrete steps employers can take to ensure they’re creating an inclusive and caring workplace where compassion trumps politics and personal bias. Here’s what our experts have to say:

  • Step 1 Add gender-neutral bathrooms

    “Gender-neutral bathrooms can be hugely helpful for TGNC people,” says Cathers. “It creates a space that allows TGNC people to know they are welcomed there and can feel comfortable when they choose to socially transition.”

    If you’re unable to add gender-neutral bathrooms for any reason, an alternative solution is creating policies that allow trans employees to safely use the bathroom for the gender they identify with, regardless of their sex at birth.

  • Step 2 Offer health insurance plans that include transgender-related care

    A clear way to show trans employees you care about their health and well-being is to offer health insurance plans that take their unique needs into consideration.

    “Employers can have insurance policies that cover things such as electrolysis, facial surgeries and other transgender-related healthcare that doesn’t necessarily fall under the category of gender-confirming surgery,” says Cathers.

  • Step 3 Set up sensitivity training to educate all employees on how to treat one another

    While some transgender individuals may feel perfectly comfortable answering questions from curious colleagues, others may feel squeamish about it—and in any case, it’s not their responsibility to field queries.

    The best way to ensure the comfort of TGNC employees is to implement sensitivity training so that other employees understand potential boundaries and limits, and also know how to use appropriate language/vocabulary. It’s not limited to trans issues, either. Sensitivity training can also help deal with a variety of workplace issues, such as racism or misogyny.

  • Step 4 Have a formal non-discrimination policy, and display it proudly

    Workplaces who want to assure employees and customers that they are open and friendly to TGNC workers and other minorities should have a formal policy regarding discrimination. They should also display it prominently, both in the workplace and on their website, if applicable. Such policies can let trans individuals know they are welcome to apply for employment without fear of discrimination. In the meantime, it can serve as a reminder of how all employees are expected to treat one another.

  • Step 5 Use preferred pronouns when describing TGNC workers

    TGNC individuals often prefer you use specific pronouns when describing them. These pronouns can vary from person to person. Some fully identify with a particular gender and want to be called “she” or “he.” Others may prefer “ze” or “they.” If in doubt, ask in a respectful, compassionate way.

  • Step 6 Take employee concerns or complaints seriously

    Employers who want their anti-discrimination policies taken seriously need to do the same with accusations of unfair treatment or discrimination. Don’t dismiss something as insignificant or a mistake, as one incident may be indicative of a larger problem. Instead, look into the problem and address it, following through until an agreeable resolution is reached.

  • Step 7 Make it easy for TGNC employers to use their preferred names and assume their authentic identity

    Even though workers are required to use their legal names for official purposes, make it clear that on the job they’re free to use their preferred names. Similarly, reassure them that their appearance and dress isn’t an issue—it’s all about how they do their work.

Educating yourself about TGCN issues and concerns and how to talk about them is an important part of creating inclusive policies and workplaces. To learn more about LGBTQ issues and creating unbiased workplace policies, try the following resources:

  • Human Rights Campaign

    Learn how to protect employees who are currently considering a transition or are in the midst of transition, using proper business guidelines and etiquette.

  • HR Acuity

    Read about five primary ways any business can create an inclusive environment for transgender workers.

  • LH Lewitt Hackman

    Learn how to create an inclusive environment for all workers while also avoiding discrimination and harassment.

  • Model Transgender Employment Policy: Negotiating for Inclusive Workplaces

    This resource from the Transgender Law Center offers several example policies and guidance for employers dedicated to creating inclusive and safe workplaces.

  • OSHA.gov

    Read how to create an inclusive bathroom policy for trans workers, plus why it matters.

  • Pride @ Work

    Find out how to avoid discrimination against transgender individuals in your workplace by enacting policies fit for union members and allies.

  • Trans Can Work

    Learn about the ways hiring trans workers can benefit your business.

  • Transgender Law Center

    This booklet offers advice on creating ideal policies for an inclusive workplace.

  • U.S. Office of Personnel Management

    Receive guidance regarding the employment of transgender employees in the federal workplace.

For more general information on TGNC issues and concerns, take a look at the following educational resources:

  • American Psychological Association

    Learn why trans individuals are often misunderstood and how you can help them thrive.

  • GLAAD Reference Guide

    Educate yourself on the appropriate language to use with GLAAD’s glossary of transgender terms.

  • PFLAG

    Learn how you can support trans individuals in the workplace and your community.

Additional Resources

The more you learn about the trans community, the more equipped you’ll be to become an ally.

  • Advocate

    Stay up-to-date on transgender issues from the world’s leading source of LGBTQ news.

  • Daily Strength

    Find a transgender support group in your area.

  • Everyday Feminism

    Learn all you can about the trans community through the eyes of feminism.

  • The Transgender Institute

    Connect with licensed therapists who can provide emotional support and advice for trans individuals in transition.