Transitioning at Work

With the acceptance of transgender people on the rise, more employers are adopting specific policies for their workers who are transitioning.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017
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In most every segment of society, Amber Lambert was living much like any other American woman -- albeit a very ambitious one. Married, with two young children, she was active in their school and at her church. A full-time student at Texas Woman's University in Denton, Texas, Lambert was completing the requirements for her fourth degree, a bachelor's in general studies, with plans to earn a master's in informatics. At the same time, she was working full-time as a security analyst in the global compliancy infrastructure and security department at Plano, Texas-based Nokia. Everyone knew her as Amber, a 50-something woman, except at Nokia, where she was known as Anthony. Lambert is transgender.

Since her teen years, Lambert, who was born male, has identified as a woman and suffered extreme physical and emotional abuse as a result. She shut down, developed post-traumatic-stress disorder and lived in fear of being ostracized, harassed or violently attacked for the next three decades. At times, Lambert felt suicidal, but with the help of a good friend, she sought out counseling and finally got comfortable being transgender. By July 2014, she met the federal guidelines to begin hormone-replacement therapy and her transition began in earnest.

"I started coming out and dressing [as a woman] and not worrying about it," says Lambert. "I had to move on with my life."

Since she began attending TWU in 2015, after her transition began, she has presented as a woman -- with the administration's full knowledge -- the entire time. At her children's school, Lambert has been relatively well-accepted. And even though the transgender community cautions transitioning individuals not to come out at church, Lambert says, she's been generally well-received within her congregation as well.

When it came to the workplace, however, she was reluctant to tell management and co-workers of her transgender status. "I have a family to feed, and it was one of those things where you're afraid of being found out because there could be bad consequences," she says.

In 2016, one of Lambert's co-workers, a veteran dealing with PTSD, figured out her secret. In the midst of a nervous breakdown, he told a number of co-workers that Lambert was transgender. Rather than shying away from his assertion, she decided it was finally time to come out at work.

"I was tired of trying to hide . . . of having to change into more gender-appropriate clothing in my car before I came into work," she says. "It was making me unhappy, so I just acknowledged what was going on and began the process of coming out at work."

It turns out Lambert had nothing to fear, as Nokia has a history of supporting employees who are transitioning in the workplace, according to Brenda Sitton, equal opportunity and affirmative action manager. That includes everything from providing guidance on coming out as transgender to management and co-workers; to bathroom usage, name change and pronoun use; to ID badge photos, email addresses and transgender health benefits.

In 2011, the global-technology leader formalized its transgender guidelines and posted them to the company intranet, so everyone could understand the process and know where to seek assistance or ask a question.

"This view toward inclusion is part of our culture here at Nokia," says Julie Liptak, vice president of human resources for the Americas. "What we have as far as policies and practices to support people as they transition is really just a compilation of who we are as a company and how we want to be as an organization."

Nokia is far from the only major employer that has taken strides to ensure transgender employees are treated with respect and given assistance while transitioning. According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's 2017 Corporate Equality Index, 82 percent of all Fortune 500 companies have nondiscrimination protections that include gender identity, compared to just 3 percent when the CEI launched in 2002. Such policies cover everything from informing co-workers of an employee's transgender status to ensuring the transitioning individual does not become the target of discrimination to helping them navigate the often tricky world of transgender healthcare.

"We've had a steady progression in our culture of gay and lesbian and transgender acceptance," says Darrell Crosgrove, research assistant in the department of management at the University of Toledo College of Business and Innovation. "Employers are actively advancing transgender rights because they are responding to what the population wants."

While it's often believed millennials are driving the growth of transgender policies, Crosgrove and his associates found workplace transgender-rights acceptance is actually highest amongst female employees born prior to 1945, at least in the university setting. Across all age groups, women consistently rate higher than men. Millennials rate slightly higher than their older colleagues when asked, "How important is it for your employer to provide an environment that respects non-binary gender diversity?" According to Crosgrove, this widespread acceptance signifies a broad cultural shift toward full transgender accommodation.

A Way of Life

While there's been a dramatic increase in the number of organizations putting formal transgender policies in place, Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride At Work -- a Washington-based constituency group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender union members and allies -- is cynical about that quick escalation.

"The rapid change from 3 percent to 82 percent didn't happen because companies suddenly realized it was the right thing to do, but because other companies were getting good press for making those changes," says Davis. "It's more about public relations than doing the right thing."

Furthermore, Pride at Work is critical of the CEI because "it doesn't dig too deeply into whether or not companies actually adhere to their policies," says Davis. As a result, he says, corporate transgender policies often "aren't worth the paper they're written on."

"CEI does good things in showing which corporations have these policies, but it doesn't go far enough in making sure that the lived experience of the workers is taken into account when these corporations are scored," says Davis. "What we often see is when it goes against profitability . . . [employers] are going to overlook their policy and get rid of that [transgender] employee."

That assessment rings true with Lambert. At previous employers, she watched as transgender co-workers weren't always treated in accordance with the company's written guidelines. "They would say one thing and then take actions [that were] detrimental behind the scenes," says Lambert. She was relieved to discover that wasn't the case at Nokia.

While Lambert was outed in a less-than-ideal fashion, that didn't change the manner in which Nokia's HR team helped guide her through the process of transitioning at work. In accordance with company policy, HR scheduled a meeting with Lambert's co-workers to inform them of her transition and address any questions or concerns. Lambert was given the opportunity to be present, but declined, as is typically the case, according to Sitton. At this point, she says, acceptance of transgender employees is so embedded in Nokia's culture, "it's become a way of life" and one that rarely generates any measurable amount of surprise or concern among the workforce.

"Most of the time, the response is, 'Yeah, they're transitioning. We're good with that.' And they move on," says Sitton. "It's not a big deal anymore."

For her part, Lambert says, she was assured Nokia would not tolerate any harassment or discrimination at the hands of her co-workers. "When management was made aware [of my transgender status], they were very clear about it: 'You are not going to have any problems. There will be no repercussions. We won't tolerate it,' " says Lambert. "They were so adamant that I would be protected ... ."

At Chicago-based Leo Burnett, where gender identity has been part of the diversity platform since 2012, formal transition guidelines were sent via email to all 1,800 U.S. employees of the global advertising agency in September 2015. Individual managers are instructed to notify HR if they receive notice of an employee's plan to transition, so they can "dial up the vigilance" and watch for any harassment or signs of discomfort among the workforce, according to Renetta McCann, chief talent officer. Remarkably, there's been no pushback whatsoever, something McCann credits to the company's "open creative environment." 

At Nokia, Lambert admits her colleagues were a bit standoffish at first, primarily because they didn't know what to expect. Now that a few months have passed, they've grown accustomed to working with Amber, rather than Anthony, although they occasionally slip and use the wrong pronoun when referring to her.

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"It's gotten to the point where they'll go, 'Dude, I'm sorry. . .' " says Lambert. "You just laugh and go with the flow."

Nokia seeks to minimize lingering doubts in the minds of co-workers by encouraging open communication, not just in the initial meeting, but in their day-to-day interactions with their transgender colleague. If they have a question, Sitton says, they should simply ask. Naturally, the transgender employee's privacy is respected and specific details about [his or her] transition -- medical procedures and the like -- are left to the transitioning employee to share with colleagues, if [he or she] decides to do so.

Expanding Coverage

Increasingly, organizations are incorporating transgender-specific coverage into their health plans. Of the nearly 900 companies rated in the HRC's 2017 CEI, 73 percent offer transgender-inclusive health coverage, and 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies have at least one plan that covers hormone-replacement therapy. Just 15 years ago, none did.

In Newtown Square, Pa., SAP America Inc. has been offering transgender-specific benefits, including coverage for gender-reassignment surgery and behavioral health/mental health counseling, for some time. Beginning in 2017, however, the enterprise software giant has expanded its medical-coverage plan to include masculinization and feminization procedures designed to help complete the transition from one gender to the other, says Jason Russell, North America total rewards director. That includes surgical procedures on the bones of the face and Adam's apple, hair removal or implantation and liposuction to create a feminine waist.

Such procedures have long been considered cosmetic, but are increasingly viewed as reconstructive, says Margaret Botney, senior consultant at Conduent HR Services in Florham Park, N.J. Few employers currently cover such procedures, but doing so will ultimately result in cost savings down the road, as supporting an employee in completing his or her physical transition will "offset whatever mental-health costs and hospitalizations might be incurred by not providing them," says Botney.

All of SAP's expanded transgender benefits cover dependents as well as employees. In fact, one benefit in particular is geared specifically toward minors who identify as a different gender, but are too young to qualify for sex-reassignment surgery. Puberty suppression medication staves off the development of secondary sexual characteristics, such as facial hair, deep voices, and Adam's apples in boys and breast development and menstruation in girls. "We wanted to make sure we were as inclusive as we could be, and that includes a child who's transgender or struggling with gender identity," says Russell.

All too often, organizations try to justify not covering transition-related medical procedures by citing the high cost involved, according to Michael Weaver, partner-in-charge for LGBT diversity and inclusion at Chicago-based McDermott Will and Emery, one of the first U.S. law firms to offer full transgender health coverage. However, he considers such coverage a "minor cost" of maintaining a good work environment and retaining valued employees.

"It doesn't cost that much to cover transgender folks for medical benefits, especially when you consider that you are securing that employee's loyalty," says Weaver. "We have some really great transgender employees and we don't want to lose them."

At Nokia, Lambert wasn't aware the company offered transgender health benefits until annual enrollment came around. As she updated her gender identity in the system, she "started following links" and much to her delight, discovered she had access to transgender healthcare. HR has also demonstrated its willingness to escalate plan discussions to ensure any coverage-related issues are fully resolved for the company's transgender employees.

Lambert is grateful to Nokia, not only for going to bat for her when she was seeking approval to go forward with a surgical procedure, but for the manner in which the company has treated her throughout her transition. From her "boss' boss' boss" sending her a post-surgical "congratulations" card to addressing any barriers that get in her way, Lambert views Nokia's respectful and compassionate treatment of her as a powerful affirmation of her value, not only as an employee, but as a human being.

"It doesn't take a lot to know when they are doing something, it's not because they have to, but because they think it's right," says Lambert. "That level of commitment and support goes a long way toward making you feel like a valued individual."

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