Mental Health Awareness Week: supporting trans employees in the workplace

17 May 2019

Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 13 – 19 May 2019. The theme this year is body image: how we think and feel about our bodies. For transgender people in the workplace, body image is likely to be a significant consideration, particularly for those who are actively undergoing the mentally and physically difficult process of changing their outward image from one gender to another, whilst in employment.

It can be really challenging for employers who want to provide as benign assistance as possible for those employees undergoing this process, to know what exactly they should do to help, so in this article, we provide some practical guidance on the issues employers might face and how they can seek to support trans employees in the workplace and promote better inclusion and understanding amongst staff.

Background and statistics

In 2016, Totaljobs conducted a survey of trans workers from different industries across the UK. The results suggest that there is reason to be hopeful about the future of transgender issues in the business world, as 50% of those surveyed said that they had received positive reactions to their transitions.

This rising general acceptance and awareness is supported by a legislative framework which provides trans people with various rights, including protection against discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, and the ability to change legal gender under the Gender Recognition Act 2004. Additionally, high value judgments including Miss A de Souza E Souza v Primark Stores Ltd, in which Primark was ordered to pay the claimant nearly £50,000 after it was found to have discriminated against her in relation to her gender reassignment, have helped to raise the profile of transgender issues in the workplace and elevate awareness amongst employers of the risks of discrimination.

However, notwithstanding the evidence of increased awareness and a general willingness to change attitude, Totaljobs’ survey also found that 60% of the participants had experienced discrimination in the workplace relating to their gender identity. Furthermore, more than 53% of the participants said that they had felt the need to hide their trans status from colleagues at some time during their careers.

Potential issues in the workplace

Whilst some of the treatment suffered by trans people in the workplace are “shocking” acts of direct discrimination, as in the Primark case, Jane Fae, transgender activist, suggests that some discrimination is born out of over-cautious employers not having the right information or training in order to handle situations delicately and inoffensively. She cites the example of employers who think they are solving the “age old issue of toilet facilities” by telling trans staff to use the disabled toilet, rather than the male or female specific facilities, which often actually results in making trans employees feel more marginalised and excluded.

In August 2017, The Institute for Employment Studies’ (IES) produced a research paper, “Supporting trans employees in the workplace”, which highlighted some further key practical problems faced by employers. These include:

  • employers enforcing dress codes and/or uniforms which promote a gender binary way of dressing, limiting trans employees’ ability to present their gender in the way that they feel most comfortable with; and
  • employers using staff photos on their websites, and other promotional materials, in circumstances where the trans employee does not feel comfortable with their appearance.

Each of these issues could have a serious impact on a trans person’s body image and mental well-being, as well as give rise to possible claims of discrimination and harassment, even against the most well-intentioned employers.

With this in mind, below is a list of practical tips which employers should consider in order to help create a more inclusive workplace and to overcome some of the potential pitfalls above.

1. Approach gender identity issues in the workplace on a flexible basis.

IES’s research found that trans experiences and journeys are diverse. Employers would therefore benefit from addressing concerns and anxieties individually, and focusing on openness and communication with the employee(s) concerned.  

2. Implement trans-friendly policies

These policies should provide guidance on how to deal with staff who are transitioning or have transitioned, but which also emphasise the flexible and individual approach that will be taken to resolve any issues. The policy should also address issues of confidentiality and management of data so that there is no accidental or non-consensual disclosure of an employee’s previous identity documents.

3. Raise awareness of trans issues

Capitalise on high quality diversity and inclusion training and information from expert third parties and other resources, including charities and online information.

4. Consider providing individual toilet cubicles for all staff

Allow staff to use facilities that align best with their gender identity, or install gender-neutral facilities.  

5. Review staff dress codes or uniform policies

Look out for any potential negative implications for trans staff dress codes or uniform policies could have. Be prepared to discuss any proposals trans staff may make in relation to how they wish to present themselves. Consider implementing gender neutral uniforms.

6. Be open to enabling temporary changes to working arrangements

This could be something such as a period away from client-facing roles, if the employee suggests this as a way forward during their transition period.

7. Provide comfort and reassurance to the employee about their records

The employee should be in control of whether or not their trans status is disclosed. 

8. Website photograph

Discuss with the employee what they would like to do with their website photograph during and after their transition period.

9. Review anti-bullying and equal opportunities policies regularly

Ensure that references to the trans community are included in such policies, in the same way that any member of the LGBTQ community might be.


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