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How to build a supportive workplace for trans employees

One prominent celebrity’s story is an opportunity to prompt important discussions about being trans at work

Screenshot of Bruce Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer

Bruce Jenner can be more than water cooler talk around the office. If nobody in your company is transgender, this is a good time to ask why.

A substantial, reliable Massachusetts public health study with over 28K respondents found that 1 in 200 individuals identified as transgender. Transgender can refer to any range of diverse gender identities or expressions—such as transgender, trans man, trans woman, intersex, non-binary, genderless, two-spirited, and many others—and is better expressed under the umbrella term trans. The same study also found that trans* respondents were more likely to be unemployed and living in poverty. An Ontario study found that half of trans people are living on less than $15,000 a year. That’s hardly living.

It’s worth considering, when Bruce Jenner’s announcement comes up at your office water cooler or lunchroom, the kind of things that are said, and the tone being set by the company. It’s also worth asking the deeper questions, like whether or not your company is contributing to disproportionate unemployment of trans* workers, or whether your company is placed to attract top talent from the trans community.

Even if your office isn’t interested in corporate culture development, compliance is the bare minimum. Anti-discrimination policies should explicitly include employee protection from discrimination and harassment based on gender identity or expression because it’s the law. Almost all provincial human rights codes explicitly include gender identity or expression as a protected ground.

Plus, when it comes to trans-inclusive policies, 2/3rds of the cool kids are doing it. Of the Fortune 500 companies, 66% include “gender identity” in their anti-discrimination policies; 34% offer trans inclusive benefits, including surgical procedures for employees who wish for a medical transition.

These two stats show the difference between policy and action. There’s more to life than the bare minimum.

Safe and healthy workplaces are productive spaces, and can be a competitive advantage. And it means more than handing out a brochure (though there are some good ones). And it means more than gender-neutral washrooms (though that is also a good idea).

Some educational opportunities and management training could go a long way. The Bruce Jenner story, and also the exercise of updating anti-discrimination policies, can provide an easy segue into a discussion about how to build an equitable, livable workplace for all genders. Language about trans issues or transitioning employees can feel like a minefield, especially but not limited to respectful pronoun use. Trainers can help. Trainers can also break down some of the myths—such as the inaccurate descriptions that being trans is like being a man inside a woman’s body or vice-versa. Such a simple explanation may work fine for five-year-olds, but not grown adults. There is so much more to being trans*. And sometimes it takes educational components where employees can ask the questions they need to ask. Many trainers are available to expertly guide these discussions, and there’s likely no question they haven’t heard before. If Moose Jaw can do it, so can you.

Workplace tension can often result in adjudication—who has what rights, how to avoid conflicts of rights, and how to accommodate certain categories of people. But it doesn’t always have to be about isolating incidents and people. Transformational change and a corporate culture of respect are lofty but worthy goals. Workplaces that respect trans employees can be more about respect than about anyone trans. Respect as the norm allows people of all types equal access to employment opportunities.

A gold medal decathlete did an amazing thing last week. But trans people of means have privileges that most trans people are denied. There is a very real employment cost that comes with being true to a diverse gender identity or expression. Canadian businesses must close the gap.


Denise Brunsdon is a social media and public relations consultant with GCI Canada. She recently completed her JD/MBA at Western University, where she was the Gender and the Law Association President. You can connect with her @brunsdonDenise would like to thank N. Nicole Nussbaum for her helpful advice during the research for this column.