Transgender in the Workplace: What's In It for Your Organization?

It may sound cold, but the fact is that corporations exist for only one reason: to make a profit for the shareholders. That's a harsh reality and a business imperative in today's economy. Since this is the case, it seems reasonable to ask why a business organization would consider becoming transgender-inclusive.

At first glance, such an initiative might appear to be counterintuitive. After all, what could an organization realistically have to gain? Wouldn't it be disruptive to productivity? Wouldn't it cost money? Usually, the answers to those questions are (1) a great deal, (2) not if you do it effectively, and (3) not nearly as much as you'll probably save and/or make.

Let's face it: No successful business leader makes decisions that she or he believes will lose money for the organization. The mantra of business today is, "Cut costs and maximize profits, no matter what." Thriving organizations around the world are discovering the validity and business advantages of becoming transgender-inclusive. Otherwise, they simply wouldn't do it.

Over half the Fortune 500 companies now have trans-inclusive nondiscrimination policies for their workplaces. These leading organizations are experiencing the cultural, community, industry-wide, marketing, and fiscal advantages that accompany the presence of transgender people in the workplace.

Something like that doesn't happen by accident. It often begins when someone suggests that the company might be better off if it accepted transgender workers, possibly as an extension of the organization's existing diversity program. Up until the year 2000 or so, such a suggestion was usually dismissed out of hand as impractical or potentially damaging to the company's reputation. However, we're experiencing a sea change regarding the business community's perspective on the transgender issue.

Social change often happens first in the workplace. While increasing numbers of lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers have made their presence known at work, transgender employees have historically (and unfortunately) tended to lag behind in terms of visibility, due in no small part to the following:
  • Public/business understanding and social acceptance of trans persons was not the norm.
  • Most corporate policies, employee guidelines, and cultures were not trans-inclusive.
  • Most federal, state and local laws did not specifically protect transgender workers.
  • Most trans people remained closeted out of fear of reprisal and/or potential job loss.
  • No effective support mechanisms and/or proven best practices existed to help ease the way for transgender inclusion.
  • It's easier to be discreet about one's sexual orientation than it is to hide a gender transition on the job.

Perhaps most significantly, a solid, practical, financially feasible business case for transgender inclusion had yet to be developed. Business leaders were not going to accept transgender workers if they could not fully rationalize it from a financial perspective.

Gradually, however, that scenario began to shift. For example, a growing national emphasis on equal rights under the law for sexual/gender minorities provided some impetus for workplace change. A few leading corporations developed trans-inclusive employee policies, usually focused around nondiscrimination on the basis of gender identity and/or gender expression. Over the last few years, rapidly growing numbers of organizations have followed this leading-edge trend toward transgender inclusion.

Currently, 17 states and the District of Columbia have legal protections for transgender citizens in the area of employment. (Unfortunately, this means that there are still 33 states to go.) Many cities and municipalities have adopted laws and policies that protect trans persons on the job. However, there is no specific federal statute that protects the rights of transgender workers. Until a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is able to pass through Congress, there will continue to be no federal legal protections for transgender citizens in the workplace. Given the present political composition of the House of Representatives, such a federal law doesn't appear likely to come to fruition in the immediate future.

Nevertheless, some encouraging signs are taking place on the legal front. In 2012 the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) unanimously ruled that an employer who discriminates against an employee or applicant on the basis of the person's gender identity is violating the prohibition on sex discrimination contained in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Finally, transgender workers have some legal recourse against workplace discrimination. The obvious implications are that business organizations must:
  1. Be prepared to deal with the new reality of openly transgender applicants/employees
  2. Treat those individuals fairly or face possible legal repercussions
Consequently, part of the business case for transgender inclusion now involves the avoidance of discrimination lawsuits and their accompanying expenditures.
There are other benefits to be derived from transgender inclusion, including the following:
  • Teamwork often improves.
  • Cultural competence is enhanced.
  • The organization's brand and public image are boosted.
  • Company loyalty and internal branding increases within employees.
  • Recruitment and retention of top talent improves.
  • The numerous creative advantages of an increasingly diverse workforce can be leveraged.
  • Workplace productivity goes up, and profitability increases.

Everyone wins.

Is transgender inclusion disruptive to workplace productivity? Only when the initiative is poorly implemented and/or not fully supported by top management. Many leading international organizations have discovered that transgender inclusion is a measurable asset, not a detriment, to their business. Done the right way, the acceptance of transgender workers can add a distinct competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Wouldn't it cost money? No more than any other employee-nondiscrimination initiative. You don't need to reinvent the wheel: Usually, transgender inclusion efforts can fit neatly into existing organizational diversity programs. In most cases, what's needed is to:
  • Add some wording to your company's employee policy
  • Provide appropriate guidelines/procedures
  • Offer appropriate employee benefits (which have been proven to be cost-efficient)
  • Deliver transgender awareness training for management and work teams
  • Have the full support of top management

You'll end up saving money, improving cultural competence, increasing profitability, and becoming a competitive, forward-thinking diversity leader in your industry. What's not to like?