Better Life Lab

Businesses of Any Size Can Accommodate Their Trans Employees. They Just Have to Try.

More and more companies are adding gender identity to their diversity statements.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

Despite recent progress in visibility and legal protections, many transgender Americans still experience discrimination around work, whether when applying for a job or as they’re trying to do one. Per the 2015 US Transgender Survey, published by the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly one in five respondents reported their belief that they were fired, denied a promotion, or not hired for a job due to their gender identity or gender expression. Twenty-nine percent of respondents reported that they were living in poverty, and their unemployment rate was three times higher than the overall number.

NCTE executive director Mara Keisling says there are many factors that contribute to trans folks’ struggles in the workplace. “There are difficulties getting a job in the first place, from resumes that might have a gap in them” for the duration of medical transition, “to references who might know them by a different name, to headhunters who may feel it’s easier not to bring a trans candidate to a client because they don’t know how that client will react,” she says. “Trans people may not be hired, they may be fired, not promoted, or hidden from clients or not offered customer-facing jobs.”

As transgender people have become more visible in the culture, however, many companies in a variety of industries have added gender identity to their diversity statements. One of these is Werner Enterprises, a global transportation company based out of Omaha, Nebraska, which has included gender identity in its statement for the past five years. “We want everyone to feel welcome to come join us, and come work,” says Werner VP of human resources Stefanie Christiansen.

Amanda Eleanor Pitts is a trans woman who’s driven a Werner truck since December 2016. “It’s been a lot better than other jobs I’ve had,” Pitts says. “It doesn’t feel like they’re trying to tiptoe around something that could get them sued; it just feels like they’re nice to me and treat me like any other normal person.” Werner prides itself on employing a greater percentage of women drivers than any other competitor (10 percent, compared to fewer than 6 percent industrywide). It also offers a 24-hour safety hotline, which Pitts used when a truck driver from another company sexually exposed himself to her while she was trying to deliver a load

When Dana Pizzuti, a physician who works for a large pharmaceutical company, declared her intention to transition in 2015, she had already spent eight years on the job. “The company was supportive, but they’d never done it before,” she says. “There was no official LGBT employee association or any policies covering employee transition. It took some time, but together we put together a communications plan, I took some time off for facial feminization surgery, and came back as the new me.”

Pizzuti, who plans to write a book taking guiding transgender people through the transition process, consulted a lawyer before informing the company of her plans, and admits she sometimes felt some of her colleagues treated her differently after the change. But overall, she’s proud that the team of roughly 500 people she manages took the news professionally. “My industry is so conservative. It was always very nebulous, like something’s different about you, but then no one could give me an answer about what it was,” she says. But Pizzuti prefers to focus on the positive aspects of being an engine of progress in her own company and beyond. “Since I came forward [the company] has created a resource group for LGBT issues, and just this year they’re covering transgender care through their health insurance,” she says. “I’ve also been contacted by others in business to tell them my story and advise as they make decisions about their own policies.”

One resource for employers interested in improving their accommodation of trans employees is the Transgender Law Center’s model transgender employment policy. The sample guide covers ten core areas of the transgender experience at work. Some, like the use of gender concordant pronouns, anti-discrimination and harassment language, and the right for transgender people to use restrooms and changing rooms that accord with their gender identity, cover well-trodden ground in trans advocacy. Others may be less intuitive for those unfamiliar with trans people’s needs. For instance, the model policy enshrines a right for people to keep their trans status private, and to decide whether and to whom they wish to disclose. It also ensures the company’s health care plan includes transition-related medical needs, and it provides a sample plan modeling how to support an employee who is transitioning on the job.

Although detailed employment policies are tailored for the needs of large corporations with an extensive human resources infrastructure, having a workplace that accommodates the needs of transgender employees shouldn’t be a stretch for smaller businesses. “It comes down to the golden rule,” says Keisling of NCTE. “Treat other people as you’d like to be treated, treat your employees like they’re people, and treat everybody the same.” From trans truck drivers to top-level corporate managers, it turns out that respecting the rights of transgender workers isn’t much different from respecting anyone else.