Gender Transition in the Workplace
July 19, 2012

By Sandy Cooper and Al Carlozzi

Gender identity has become the latest battleground in workplace discrimination law. From 2004-09, 322 major companies have added gender identity to their nondiscrimination/EEO policies. In an April 2012 ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. government stated that transgender people are protected by the antidiscrimination law of Title VII. This ruling clarified that charges of gender stereotyping are considered sex discrimination under existing law.

What Is Transgender?

The word “transgender” has been cropping up recently in pop culture and the news. From Chaz Bono on “Dancing With the Stars” to the transgender contestant in the Miss Universe Canada pageant to a Colorado Girl Scout troop’s decision to allow a transgender seven-year-old to join, it’s been nothing short of controversial. So what exactly is transgender?

A person whose gender identity (their sense of being masculine, feminine or other gendered) differs from that usually associated with their birth sex is called transgender. Transgender individuals may be gay, straight or bisexual, and often wish to transform their bodies hormonally and/or surgically to match their inner sense of gender.

While some transgender individuals opt for sex reassignment surgery, many never have this procedure; genital reassignment surgery is risky, invasive and can cost upwards of $70,000 (and typically is not covered by health insurance). Other surgeries and procedures available to transgender individuals wishing to “change” their sex include electrolysis, voice coaching, removal of sex organs and myriad others. However, hormone therapy is the most widely used method for changing one’s sexual appearance.

Do You Have a Gender Transition Plan at Your Institution?

Many communities have support groups that can assist a gender transitioning individual in approaching his or her employer and navigating through the process. If you as the HR professional have been notified that a gender transition is pending at your institution, you can become a valuable member of the transition “team.”

A transition team should include the transitioning employee, a counseling professional such as a licensed therapist, at least one other individual who has undergone a gender transition, and an employer representative (this could be the employee’s supervisor, an HR professional, or both). The transition team should meet regularly to identify and discuss issues associated with the employee’s transition. Issues include timing of any announcements to fellow workers or other campus constituents, a communication plan, use of restrooms, safety, staff development and temporary job reassignment (if appropriate and requested by the employee).

Usually in the case of a gender transition, an announcement will be necessary to minimize confusion, alleviate fears (as unfounded as they may be) and foster acceptance, especially if the transitioning employee is in the “public” eye. The timing of the announcement should be based on the desires of the transitioning employee — he or she should decide when the announcement will be made and should have the authority to postpone or cancel the announcement at any time.

A communication plan can help in deciding when and how to announce the transition to relevant groups. Oftentimes, the transitioning employee will opt to make the announcement himself or herself to co-workers. After the employee makes the initial announcement, it is suggested that the individual leave the room so the transition team can assist with questions and emotions. Allowing co-workers to express their surprise and ask questions in a non-threatening environment, while setting the tone for expectations of future behavior, can be a delicate balance. The more knowledgeable the transition team is on transgender issues, the more likely the outcome will be successful.

On rare occasions there may need to be a temporary change in work duties for the transitioning employee. For example, if the employee is in a position that works extensively with the public, allowing time for the information to be made available to various constituents will allow for a smoother transition. This should be a short-term change that has a well-planned exit strategy.

The use of restrooms is a common but unfounded discomfort. The general rule, for both safety and practical reasons, is that the individual should use the restroom of the gender they present. Campuses may also wish to designate gender-neutral restrooms or family restrooms. The transgender employee may prefer to use the gender-neutral restroom, especially at the beginning of the transition, but should not be forced to do so.

The safety of the transgender employee should be a priority. Communications with campus police should occur prior to an announcement of the transition. Campus police and supervisors should be alert to suspicious behavior or bullying, and prompt action should be taken to address harassment or discriminatory behavior.

Campus-wide training on sexual orientation and sexual identity is a good idea even if you do not have an employee who is going through a gender transition. Promotion of a culture of respect and inclusion can happen at any time. If you have been proactive in these areas, a training plan may only need to include more of what you are already doing to promote an atmosphere that celebrates diversity. However, if you have not had diversity training specific to sexual orientation or gender identity issues, now is the time to do so. Combating misinformation can be handled through education. While each individual is entitled to his or her own beliefs, this does not give anyone the right to dictate what other employees can or can’t do, nor do they have the right to mitigate the rights of others.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

An employee’s gender transition will be an adjustment for everyone. Relearning what to call a co-worker (including use of appropriate pronouns) takes practice. While it may be difficult to switch, you should pay close attention. An occasional mistake is not offensive, but purposeful use of the previous name or pronoun can lead to a harassment claim. The transition may be considered “news” by some on your campus, particularly if you are in a conservative area or on a small campus. Monitoring gossip and respecting confidentiality and privacy are part of keeping the environment free of harassment.

HR professionals are accustomed to name changes for employees. A similar process will apply for the transitioning employee once a legal name change has occurred. A new social security card, a new e-mail address and a new name plate are all standard procedures.

While gender reassignment surgery will most likely not be covered on health insurance, the provider should file a pre-determination of benefits to be sure. Policy coverage for hormone therapy may also vary. Once gender identification has been changed, both the medical provider and the insurance company will need to update their files. If a claim is submitted and the genders do not match, the claim will be rejected resulting in a resubmission or correction process. Additionally, some medical exams or procedures will automatically be rejected, i.e. prostate or breast exams, and the appeal process will again need to be utilized.

How Can We Stay in Compliance?

A thorough review of your equal employment opportunity, harassment and discrimination policies should be conducted to ensure that they are up to date and compliant with federal, state and local law. This area of law is changing rapidly. As of January 2009, 39 percent of people in America are covered under state and/or local antidiscrimination laws. As stated above, the EEOC now includes gender identity in its interpretation of Title VII sex discrimination.

Where Can I Find More Information?

The resources that were used for this article are listed below:

Sandy Cooper is director of human resources at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa. She can be reached at Al Carlozzi is professor of counseling psychology at Oklahoma State University. He can be reached at