Four Lessons in Helping a Colleague Through Gender Transition at Work - Glassdoor for Employers

Four Lessons in Helping a Colleague Through Gender Transition at Work

I am a cis, straight, Caucasian male. I am an ally and advocate for my LGBTQ+ colleagues, but simply haven't faced the same challenges in the workplace. Despite corporate America's focus on inclusion, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) found that 46 percent of our LGBTQ+ colleagues are still not out in their places of work. Many fear discrimination and are left feeling exhausted from the emotional labor of keeping their sexual orientation hidden. Members of the Trans community are at especially high risk for depression and discrimination at work. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 27 percent report having been fired or turned down for jobs, and a shocking 80 percent report experiencing direct harassment or mistreatment in the workplace based on their gender identity.

Last year, I had my first experience as an HR Business Partner supporting an employee who was managing gender transition at work. When we first spoke, she intimated that she had gone through all aspects of the social transition from male to female gender outside of work, was in the process of physical transition and wanted to stop switching between gender identities just to come into the office. She wanted to start being herself at work.

Bringing your authentic self to work is something we talk about quite a bit at PayPal, and it's core to our corporate values of diversity and inclusion. Even so, I had a lot to learn through the process of supporting this colleague and want to share my experience as an ally with the hope that it might help others provide stronger partnerships to their transitioning employees. While there is a small, but growing, body of work on best practices for HR support of gender transition (I highly recommend the HRC's Trans Toolkit for Employers), I still see room for significant improvement in how corporations operationalize inclusion efforts and support our Trans colleagues. Here are my four key learnings:

1. Always Put the Employee First

If there is one guiding principle I would share, it's to do everything you can to give the employee as much control over their experience as they want. The process of transitioning in the workplace should index heavily on providing comfort and interactions that support the employee's psychological safety.  Throughout every step in the process, I asked my colleague questions like "How do you want to approach this?," "Does this work for you?," "Who do you want to involve and when?," and "Is there anything else you can think of that would make this work better for you?" This focus put her in the driver's seat on all decisions we made.

If you are working with an employee who doesn't have a clear sense of how they would like to manage the process or is nervous about making those decisions, I recommend leveraging some of the best practices shared by the HRC (linked above) and asking questions designed to help your employee think through what each step may look like in their immediate environment and how that would make them feel, then adapt from there.

RELATED: Why Now is the Time to Become LGBTQ Inclusive (And How To Do It)

2. Don't Hesitate to Leverage Your Network

As I mentioned, this was the first time I had supported an employee transitioning at work. When you lack experience, research is critical, and input from those with more exposure is key. For me, this meant reaching out to my network to understand if peers or clients had supported other employees transitioning at work. Doing so helped me connect with another member of our organization who had transitioned in the past year. I asked if she would be willing to share her experience with me as part of my effort to support another trans woman coming out in the workplace. She was very generous with her time and perspective, fielding questions about what the transition was like for her, how she had managed in terms of communicating to her team and addressing changes in dress, pronoun use, name, bathroom use and the like.

I also leveraged the perspective of our Pride employee resource group, which focuses on providing education, community and support to LGBTQ+ employees, allies and others. The Pride team provided additional perspective and knowledge of best practices to me and our transitioning employee.

Having these resources and the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others helped demystify the transition for both myself and the employee, and gave us the confidence that we were heading in the right direction with our planning.

3. Think Beyond the Initial Communication and Be Sure to Follow Up

Once communication around an employee's gender transition begins, the cat does not go back in the bag, so it is important to coordinate steps for both the initial and follow-up communications in a cohesive way.

My colleague and I collaborated directly on a plan that not only included initial conversations with her manager (and which of us would have that conversation first), but additional steps like deciding the first day she would come into the office as her whole self, what content to include in the communication to her team, the scope of that communication (i.e., if sent to peers vs. broader organization) and expectation-setting around  her name, preferred pronouns, style of dress and which bathroom she would use. We aligned all communications into a crisp timeline to ensure a clean and predictable order of events.

My responsibility to her did not stop there. We proactively scheduled a check-in for after the communication to follow up on whether she felt comfortable and whether she was experiencing any adverse reaction or concerning interactions. Indexing on both her physical and psychological safety was paramount.

4. Commit to Empathy and Human Kindness

The employee who transitioned is a veteran of the U.S. military. She has devoted herself to others on numerous occasions and has saved lives through her own brave actions. I left our interactions with deep admiration for the bravery she continues to show in interacting with others - particularly those who don't understand her identity.  Throughout our work together, she consistently reiterated that she wanted anyone who wasn't comfortable with her identity to feel safe expressing that discomfort and that she would be patient and transparent with all colleagues. The degree to which she showed empathy to others never ceased to amaze me, especially as that empathy focused on understanding for those who might not want her to be herself.  Our friends, peers and colleagues in the Trans community deserve that same empathy in return.

RELATED: 4 Questions to Ask Applicants to Assess Their Empathy

I learned a lot about the experience of my Trans colleagues through the work we did to support this transition, and I know I have a ton more to learn to continue to become a better ally to the community. I'm proud to say that this work has become a catalyst for PayPal to work on building a toolkit aligned to our culture, values and brand to support employees in transition, so that others in the future can have a clearer roadmap, less ambiguity and hopefully have a progressively more inclusive experience where they can bring their full selves to work.

Ryan Gutterson is a Director and HR Business Partner at PayPal. He's been with the company for two years and joined from Hewlett Packard Enterprise in 2017, and has supported Global Sales, HR and various Engineering leadership organizations as an HR Business Partner since graduating from the UCLA Anderson School of Management in 2014. He is passionate about working with talented, cross-functional teams to develop and execute on challenging, high-impact initiatives, and partnering with clients from front line staff to senior executives to realize their career goals. Ryan and his wife spend their spare time as foodies searching for the next best restaurant or bar, hiking, enjoying film and theater and playing with their pets (Cooper and Cheeto). Ryan is an amateur musician, vinyl aficionado, karaoke addict and backpacker.

Learn More:

Checklist for Empowering LGBTQ Employees