Cultivate a Trans-Inclusive Workplace

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

Many organizations are increasingly focused on inclusivity. That’s thanks to a growing realization in research and in practice that people only reach their full potential at work when they can feel authentic and engaged. And that includes transgender workers.

Nine out of 10 Fortune 500 companies have included gender identity as part of their non-discrimination policies for their U.S. workforces, but that’s policy and not always lived reality. According to one study, nearly half of transgender employees in the U.S. experience discriminatory behavior on a daily basis at work ranging from targeted negative remarks to just being ignored.

Our guest today researches this issue to understand the barriers that keep even well-meaning managers and leaders from making their organizations welcome for transgender employees — and she’s here to explain how to overcome those barriers. Katina Sawyer is a management professor at the George Washington University, and she wrote with Christian Thoroughgood and Jennica Webster the HBR article, “Creating A Trans-Inclusive Workplace.”

And a quick note: we spoke with Katina early on during the coronavirus pandemic. We followed up with her very recently to ask how you create a trans-inclusive workplace when that workplace may now be remote or virtual. And you’ll hear that update at the end of the interview. Katina, thanks for coming on the show.

KATINA SAWYER: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

CURT NICKISCH: What do managers currently misunderstand maybe the most about transgender workers?

KATINA SAWYER: I think that the biggest thing that people miss is that they mistake their own lack of familiarity with a population for that population itself being scary or off limits or not something that they should broach. And so I think that one of the things that people are missing, frankly, is recognizing or understanding that it’s okay to start off from a place of not knowing and that asking questions and working collaboratively with people who are in that population to learn and understand and grow is actually a really necessary first step in order to make the workplace more inclusive.

CURT NICKISCH: What is it about transgender people that is especially difficult for managers?

KATINA SAWYER: I think gender is really a primary organizing framework that we’ve been socialized to count as important within society. We’re all born with different parts, but what gender is is sort of what people expect we’re going to do because we have those parts. And so when a baby is born, the first thing that people think is like, okay, I gotta get a present for the baby; well, is the baby a boy or a girl? And that guides what people purchase for them, pink versus blue. And so I think that there’s a lot of hanging on to of those societal systems because we’re very comfortable with them and because they’ve been ingrained in us for a long time.

And so to me, I think that this is a huge issue in a way that maybe some other things may not be, and obviously there are tons of diversity and inclusion, inclusion issues we could talk about and they all have to do very much so with ingrained norms. But because gender is such a primary organizing framework in society, it causes a lot of disruption when people are asked to question sort of, well, maybe there’s another way maybe this, maybe we haven’t been capturing the full spectrum of ways that people might want to enact gender in the way that we’ve been doing it. And that can be painful, I think, for people at first.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. You talked about how it’s ingrained in people and probably one of the first things that just happens automatically in people’s minds when they walk into a conference room at work is just sorting out who’s there into like two different camps.

KATINA SAWYER: Yeah, definitely.

CURT NICKISCH: And so it just sounds more of a severe trained behavior that’s harder and harder for people to think about much less chain.

KATINA SAWYER: Yeah. And I think that there’s been a lot of push recently towards these ideas which I don’t see as being helpful for diversity and inclusion initiatives, like being gender-blind or color-blind. And I think oftentimes people try to express their inclusivity by saying they’re blind to something, but the reality is, when it comes to gender or race or other categories that matter, people can see it, it is recognizable. They try to categorize people, as you’re saying, you walk into a boardroom and, you know, you can tell who’s in that room from a gender perspective. And so what we need to do is recognize that these categories exist and then embrace the differences that we all have and create and drive inclusivity from the perspective of embracing variability as opposed to trying to erase variability.

CURT NICKISCH: Okay. So let’s take off the blindfold here. What is the experience, or what are some of the experiences of transgender people in the workplace?

KATINA SAWYER: Yeah, so I think it’s really important for me to weigh in a little bit just to say  I’m not a member of the trans community, I am a cisgender ally. What we found unfortunately and what we continue to find in our work is that trans people face a lot of discrimination on a daily basis in their workplaces. That can be formal discrimination, like losing a job, or not being given a promotion, things of that nature. But it could also be more informal things like being misgendered, which is when somebody basically knows that someone identifies with particular pronouns or a particular name that they may not have always identified with within the workplace. And when someone uses the wrong name, that’s called deadnaming — the wrong name or the wrong pronouns to refer to that person.

These are kind of discriminatory acts or acts that show people that they don’t quite fit in, in the same way as their colleagues. And so you start to kind of recognize that you no longer fit from a social perspective. And when it’s more formal, it’s easier to figure out like, yeah, this is discrimination.

When it’s less formal, it becomes very ostracizing and upsetting for people to be sidelined or marginalized. People are just scared to have a conversation with their manager or with the people sitting around them, because they’re not sure informally how those things are gonna go. So while there are an increasing number of companies that have policies on the books, and I think that’s a very positive thing, and I think that incentives towards that are also really positive, policies need to be combined with culture shifts in order to really bind and become sticky.

CURT NICKISCH: Make the case for us. Why should leaders and managers be thinking about this now?

KATINA SAWYER: So the business case is that basically, when people feel included — in this case trans employees — when they feel included in the workplace, you’re more likely to be satisfied with your job, you’re less likely to be emotionally exhausted on the job, you’re less likely to perceive discrimination and report discrimination, you’re more likely to want to stay with the company. And it also sends a signal to employees surrounding that person that the company cares about their employees.

And so for folks that are not in the trans community, for example, but see somebody being discriminated against that’s in the trans community, it can send a really negative vibe from a job satisfaction perspective and also maybe from a turnover perspective when you’re sort of vicariously witnessing other folks’ discrimination. So the business cases that you’re sort of preventatively eliminating discrimination to increase outcomes. And also there’s some research that shows that having more diverse teams when there’s also an inclusive climate creates better business solutions, products, and ideas because you just have fewer blind spots. You’re more likely to see things in a different way, less likely to overlook things that you would have otherwise overlooked.

CURT NICKISCH: Got it. But you’re saying that more human motivations are more important than the business case, or seem to have been more effective in the places that you’ve been.

KATINA SAWYER: One of my favorite stories that was shared with us was a trans woman who just transitioned in the workplace. And she for the very first time was going to go to her company’s holiday party, wearing a dress and felt pretty uncomfortable about doing that. Her employer had not shown negativity before formally towards her transition. So she felt like, you know, this, this might go okay. And so she showed up to the holiday party and she said, everything was fine. Like nobody was overtly saying or doing anything that was discriminatory, but she just felt like people didn’t know what to do. And she was a little left out.

So she said, when the music started playing, people got up and started dancing and people are kind of dancing. She’s kind of dancing by herself. And nobody’s really dancing with her. And she shared with us that somebody from the maintenance staff actually came over and put his hand out and started dancing with her. And she said from that moment on, she had no regrets about her decision to show up that way, just because of the actions of that one person that really made a difference.

You know, that story, wasn’t a story that had just happened. It was actually a story that had happened fairly far in the past, but the impact of that one person’s action really made a difference in, in her life and her willingness to want to, stay with the company and to feel comfortable in that space. Those kinds of stories are stories that make people sometimes sit back and say, okay, this is about including people at a basic level, making people feel valued. This is about showing value to all people, showing people dignity and respect that work within our workspaces every day.

People can often say, I would never say to a trans person, well, I don’t agree with that, or I don’t want you to come to lunch with me or whatever, but the question is, if you’re sitting near a trans person at work, do you make a new friend? That’s a different question than do you actively discriminate against somebody? And that kind of gets the wheels turning for people, I think, in terms of where they might be able to improve their own ability to connect with other people at work.

CURT NICKISCH: Let’s talk about some of the things that companies can do and managers can do to make their offices and workplaces more inclusive of these groups. What are some practical things that they can get started with?

KATINA SAWYER: Absolutely. So we mentioned before policies, and while again, I consider policies sort of like the floor of what you could be doing as opposed to the ceiling, right? This is a basic guardrail that exists for employees to rely on in negative situations. I do think that there are some proactively inclusive policies that also could be added, like allowing people to use the bathroom of their choice, creating more gender neutral dress codes. The idea behind that is to say, okay, these are items of clothing that we consider professional, and anybody can wear them. So if it’s considered professional for so-and-so to wear it, I would also consider it professional for such-and-such to wear it regardless of what parts they have or what I presume their gender to be.

CURT NICKISCH: Right. So you’re basically saying dress codes that say appropriate attire for women is this, appropriate attire for men is this, those need to be updated?

KATINA SAWYER: Exactly. Yeah. So if something’s professional, it’s a professional garment. And I think this really hearkens back to a lot of conversations that people have been having for a long time around gender expression in the workplace. I see these conversations as a continuation of struggles that women had in the workplace to be allowed to wear pants, right? That used to be considered a radical thing. And people thought that, oh, you really were a radical woman, if you were wearing pants in the workplace, right? That’s something that I see as all related to this idea of progress in gender expression. So I feel like if you’re a proponent of those kinds of things it should be an easier cognitive leap, I think, to be a proponent of making those norms, even more flexible.

CURT NICKISCH: One of the interesting things that you suggest is using pronouns, not just that everybody on a team or to workplace knows the preferred pronoun of a transgender worker, but that everybody, for example, in their email signature say what their pronouns are, even if they’ve long been known as a cisgender worker.

KATINA SAWYER: Yeah. I think that this is really helpful because, if you think about the number of new employees that enter the workplace, if it’s not that everybody automatically does this, then it makes it that that person has to go out of their way to be like, well, this is my issue as a trans person, I need to tell you my pronouns, as opposed to everybody here does that. And so it’s just, it’s expected that that’s something you’ll do or flag up for us.

CURT NICKISCH: Especially if leaders are doing it, right? Or if a manager of a team is putting their pronouns in an email?

KATINA SAWYER: Exactly. I think in the diversity and inclusion space, the responsibility often falls with the person who’s already feeling marginalized or stigmatized within that space to sort of advocate for themselves. And while I’m not suggesting that, majority group members should just like talk over or speak for minority members ever, I think that there is a respectful, collaborative way to go about showing and demonstrating your allyship as an action, to say we’re not doing this, we should be doing this, and I’d either, as the leader of the company, like to recommend that we all do this, and I’m going to role model that, or as somebody who’s not a senior leader in the company, but a group of us feel really strongly about this and we’re going to present the case for it to try to move those policies forward, really does make a difference, not just to trans employees, but to other people watching those behaviors.

I think for every person that’s sitting there silently wishing that their company could be more inclusive, whether they’re in a marginalized population or not, there’s somebody that will actually vocalize it. And a bunch of people that have been sitting there silently will be relieved that somebody did that.

CURT NICKISCH: We’ve talked about a couple of things that HR usually gets involved with changing dress codes or maybe bathroom policies. What other significant policy changes to companies need to kind of at an HR benefits type of level?

KATINA SAWYER: It’s really important when trans employees are going through transitions in particular, because those are periods of time that are really fraught with difficulty.

CURT NICKISCH: So this is when somebody isn’t just coming in as like a man who identifies as a woman or an identity that’s been communicated from the beginning, but a process that happens in while the person is working right during, during their tenure at work?

KATINA SAWYER: Exactly. You would be someone that came into the workplace with, you know, one, um, gender expression and maybe a different name. And then now you’re moving over to different pronouns, different name and a different form of gender expression. And in so many instances, I hear, you know, cis folks in the workplace just say, well, I just feel really uncomfortable. And I’m like, well, yeah, but the person who’s transitioning is the person who always feels the most uncomfortable, right? This is a situation about making people aware that they can transition without facing discrimination or being ostracized, et cetera, but also that the company proactively supports them and asking what they need,  working collaboratively to say, okay, you know, in an ideal situation, how would you like this to go?

That’s a great question that may have to do with conversations about covering costs or figuring out ways to create better, more comprehensive benefits for trans employees and just providing resources or support and also an inclusive environment. What would you like us to tell your coworkers? What would you like to tell your coworkers, if anything, so how would you like leadership to handle this? There’s not like one playbook for this, right? Different people may want it handled differently, but rather being open to asking the question, learning, listening, and then trying your best to enact a plan, that’s going to create the highest level of comfort.

CURT NICKISCH: I don’t want to put this on transgender workers because clearly we’re talking here about what companies, what businesses need to do in their own workplaces, in their own policies, in their own cultures. But I am curious, if a transgender worker is listening to this, what questions should they be asking to help with this transition themselves?

KATINA SAWYER: Yeah. I think that this is really difficult. So in an ideal world, I would love to say go to your HR person and talk to them about this and make them aware and say what you want. But I have heard a lot of stories of people doing that and then having really negative work outcomes as a result. So I would say if you’re not in a situation where you’re sure about the comfort level that folks have, you can find allies in the workplace that might help you to strategize.

You can find allies in the workplace that might help to push for some of these policy changes prior to. So is there somebody that you really trust that might be willing to go to bat for you and say, hey, I think we need to add this policy to the books, or is there someone in HR that you feel more comfortable speaking with about this than other people? And could you have maybe a more confidential conversation with them about how this might play out or what you need in order to feel comfortable having that conversation and to be protected? So I think there are a couple of different avenues.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. And what if it’s not you? What if you’re somebody who works with a transgender worker and it’s new to you, too? It’s not something you’ve encountered before. What’s a good way for you to approach the situation? What can you be doing as an individual?

KATINA SAWYER: I think that the building blocks of this are really pretty basic. Just showing kindness to the person, these little kindnesses are the things that crop up a lot in our data collection. Putting your hand out to ask someone to dance, stopping by someone’s desk to have a conversation and inviting them to lunch, getting to know them, asking questions. I mean, you don’t have to ask inappropriate questions about their identity, but just asking questions like you would with any other employee, right? Demonstrating that you don’t view them any differently than anyone else I think is really important. And if you’re feeling uncomfortable about treating them the same way that you would treat anybody else in the workplace, asking yourself questions about, well, why is that? If I hadn’t met any trans people before, what can I do to educate myself?

There are tons of resources online, videos that you can watch on YouTube of people talking about their experiences. There’s documentaries, there’s articles, there’s lots out there that you can do to start getting yourself to feel more comfortable. And the more contact you have with that kind of information, the less likely it is that you’ll use stereotypical judgements about those individuals, the more comfortable and confident you’ll feel in having those kinds of conversations. And those little kindnesses really seem to go a long way with people. That’s what I would recommend.

CURT NICKISCH: All right. So, as I said, in the introduction, we wanted to give Katina a call back to ask her about what she’s been seeing in recent months since we originally recorded this interview early on during the pandemic. Katina, thanks for joining us again.

KATINA SAWYER: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate you following up.

CURT NICKISCH: So recognizing that a lot of what we talked about for making transgender workplaces welcoming to transgender workers was like things like dress code, um, bathroom policies. And now we’re in a different time where people are more remote and just don’t run into each other and work in person as much. And I wondered if that makes this issue that companies are trying to address harder or easier?

KATINA SAWYER: I think that that’s a really great question. And I think you’re right, that it’s complicated in terms of, there are some things that are eliminated when you’re working from your own space, but I think it also introduces some new issues. And one of those issues is whether or not you are out at work or express your gender identity the same way at work as you do at home. I think it brings these two domains together in a way in which, for employees who may not have fully disclosed or may not express themselves the same way across work and home, it creates these new conundrums about what to do about that, and may highlight that inauthenticity across domains more strongly.

CURT NICKISCH: So what have you heard from transgender people specifically about this time?

KATINA SAWYER: What I’m hearing is some of what we just discussed, which is these challenges, both with authenticity and being put on the line, but I’m also hearing that people are feeling that their positions are particularly vulnerable. So people are fearful that they will be selected as the first to go or one of the first to go, or if you have someone who’s particularly hostile towards trans employees, let’s say this could provide a really open opportunity for them to discriminate against that individual without making it seem like that’s what’s going on, right? Like, oh, we’re in a pandemic and we need to make tough decisions and lots of people are getting laid off. And it just so happens that this is disproportionately happening to trans employees.

CURT NICKISCH: It sounds like you’re saying that a lot of transgender workers or people who want to transition just may play it really conservative right now because they feel vulnerable, and maybe not make the same move that they would have made had the pandemic not come. What about on the organizational side, because a lot of stuff has gone on the back burner for organizations? Is there movement on this or is this sort of in danger of being on the back burner?

KATINA SAWYER: Yeah, I haven’t seen — because of Black Lives Matter, bringing historical discrimination, more into the public for companies that may not have been paying attention previously — I’m seeing more diversity and inclusion trainings in the middle of the pandemic moving forward because people started to realize that this is also an important area to focus resources.

CURT NICKISCH: So what can leaders be thinking about now to make sure that they have trans-inclusive workplaces when people are working the way that they are, and also be prepared for when work returns to “normal,” right? That they have a good culture in place because it is a chance to kind of reset your organizational norms when everybody comes back again.

KATINA SAWYER: Yeah, absolutely. So I think one major thing to bring up is that since, uh, the pandemic started, the Supreme Court has actually extended federal law protections to LGBTQ employees.

CURT NICKISCH: This is in the United States –

KATINA SAWYER: In the United States, yes. That is huge. And we know that law doesn’t just mystically make discrimination go away either, so from a cultural perspective, within organizations, I think that it’s really important just to check in with people and make sure that, in this time of greater threat, you’re not just clinging to who’s comfortable to you, people who you see as similar to you if you’re a non-transgender person, and you’re thinking through, you know, who might be feeling particularly isolated. So just creating those human connections, checking in, asking how people are doing, and then extending that to when we returned to work to continue building those relationships. It’s a little harder to build relationships in a virtual environment. You need to put forth the extra effort, but when you get back into the workplace, eventually whenever that may be, don’t stop doing that. Keep reaching out, keep a pulse on what’s going on, ask how you can do better, have the tough conversations. I think that simply asking, what can I do for you? And how can I be better? That’s a really vulnerable step for a leader, but it’s also really important. And it’s one that works virtually or in person

CURT NICKISCH: Katina, this has been great. Thank you.

KATINA SAWYER: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Katina Sawyer. She’s an assistant professor of management at the George Washington university and she co-wrote the HBR article creating a trans inclusive workplace. You can find it and more on diversity and inclusion at

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe.  We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt.  Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager.  Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickish.

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