08/28/2013 12:03 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Transgender in the Workplace: The Need for Training

Laws are changing. Increasingly, legal battles are being fought and won. Subsequently, transgender people are becoming increasingly visible in every area of society, including the workplace. As more companies respond positively to the new business reality of transgender inclusion, the need for awareness training also increases.

The first step that many organizations take toward transgender inclusion is a written employee policy that precludes discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression. Such a policy is designed to ensure fairness and equality for everyone. However, a policy is only as good as the organization's ability to implement it and make it an integral part of the company's cultural environment. That's where transgender awareness training can make a meaningful difference.

Truth is, most people don't know a great deal about transgender issues. Often, what they do know -- or think they know -- can be inaccurate, misinformed, or perhaps unduly influenced by the sensationalism of the media. Let's face it: transpeople have most often been portrayed in movies, books, and on television as either prostitutes or punchlines. The vast majority of transpersons are neither. If your idea of transgender people comes from the Jerry Springer Show, then you need better, more realistic models. When provided by an experienced, knowledgeable trainer, a well-delivered training opportunity can be of significant help.

Transgender awareness training in a business organization serves a multitude of purposes:
• It can introduce laypersons to the transgender phenomenon by providing an overview of what transgender is and who transgender people are. People tend to fear what they don't know or understand. A basic introduction to transgender reality can put a human face on the issue, helping to mitigate fear and mistrust while encouraging cooperation, respect, and acceptance.
• It can present the business case for transgender inclusion. This helps employees understand the reasons why the company is choosing to become transgender inclusive. Laws and liabilities can be discussed, including the topics of discrimination and potential legal ramifications. Once the organization's business case is made known, employees are usually willing to be supportive, especially when they are shown how transgender inclusion will be a part of a company's larger, more comprehensive Diversity & Inclusion program.
• It can share the organization's transgender inclusion policy and emphasize management's support of the initiative. (Unless you have the full and complete support of top management, a transgender inclusion initiative is probably destined to fail anyway. Management's uncompromising support is essential for success in an effort like this.) When employees know that management is fully supportive and that the organization will enforce the nondiscrimination policy, they tend to be more receptive overall. Transgender inclusion is the new reality in the company, and employees need to understand that discrimination will not be tolerated.
• It can explain the expectations and responsibilities for different groups. For example, team members who work with a transgender employee need to know what is expected in terms of their behavior toward their transgender colleague. Managers and supervisors need to understand their unique organizational responsibilities. HR professionals, receptionists, security personnel and others need to be fully aware of their roles. And, of course, transgender employees need to understand the company's expectations for them.
• It can provide a way to introduce and explain best practices. This is important because no one wants productivity to suffer or the work environment to be plunged into chaos. Implementing proven best practices is an effective way to ensure ongoing organizational stability while enhancing cultural competence.
• It can address potentially complex workplace issues in a non-threatening manner. For example, the issue of restroom usage by transgender employees always comes up. A training session is the best place to address and discuss subjects (including any potential objections or complaints) in conjunction with the organization's policy and expectations around the use of restrooms/locker rooms.
• It can provide a safe environment for voicing questions, concerns, fears, and comments. All employees should have the right to share their feelings about an generally unfamiliar workplace situation such as transgender inclusion. An experienced trainer will welcome discussion and a frank (but always respectful) exchange of ideas.

The goal of transgender awareness training is not to tell people what to think, feel, or believe. People have the right to believe and/or think anything they wish about transgender individuals, and no one can -- or should -- try to stop them. Some may have religious concerns or cultural reservations about accepting transpersons. That is their right. However, awareness training should emphasize that when we come to work it's not about religion or someone's personal beliefs: it's about our behaviors. It's about how we treat each other on the job, not what we may think or feel about someone's gender identity or gender expression. It's about affording everyone the dignity they deserve. An organization has the right to expect its employees to act with respect and professionalism toward everyone, including transgender people, in the workplace.

Finally, it's worth noting that resistance to the new business reality of transgender inclusion will probably not bode well in the long run for those who choose to be holdouts. An inability to adapt to changing workplace expectations is indicative of personal inflexibility -- a characteristic which is not viewed as a career asset in today's ever-changing business climate. Transgender awareness training should emphasize this point so that everyone can understand the company's expectations for behaving with professionalism at all times. A training session is an opportunity to learn and grow. Hopefully, every employee will seize the opportunity and make the most of it.

Legalities, social understandings/expectations, and business paradigms are constantly shifting, and today's organizations must be equipped to respond accordingly. For this reason, transgender awareness training is rapidly becoming a necessity for companies seeking success in the global marketplace. Hopefully, your own organization is reacting positively to this leading-edge business trend. If not, you're encouraged to get on board...or else be left behind as your competition thunders by.