Setting a Strategy for Transgender Employees

Transitioning transgender employees. It’s a conundrum. And there’s a whole lot to consider. Such was the message Tuesday at the annual ThinkstockPhotos-531246420SHRM conference, in a workshop titled “Intel’s Strategy to Support Transgender Employees.”

Speaking were Eva Breslin, HR legal representative for Intel Corp. in Rio Rancho, N.M., and Keith Epstein, HR legal representative in the company’s Hillsboro, Ore., office.

In careful, thorough detail, they laid out all the impacts and ramifications Intel faced, which led to a comprehensive transgender strategy the company set in stone a couple years ago. After one male employee came running to Intel’s HR department complaining that a (transgendered) female was using the men’s room … it had to be done, they said.

Presenting three of their own Intel case studies — a female-identifying male who wanted to send out his transition story in a detailed email, a devout Christian who came to HR deeply hurt and offended by one employee’s change, and a transitioning male-to-female who was ready to leave work Friday and show up Monday as a woman — they discussed what went into Intel’s response to each in hopes it might help other employers (and audience members) facing similar challenges.

In those three cases, considerations included, respectively, the potential dissemination of personal medical information in the email that had to be thwarted and reworked, the need to fully explain and perhaps  enforce the new policy to the religious employee, and the need to step back and develop a cogent transition plan that would last far more than one weekend.

“How you deal with this is extremely important, and can save considerable time and expense,” said Epstein. Before the Intel strategy was adopted, for instance, “every time people were coming to us with a problem or concern, we had to start anew” with discussions and a plan, he said.

So the company established a team that included business HR, HR legal, members of the transgender community and others to put everything in writing, and on the company website.

From that point forward, all employees have been free to use whichever bathroom they prefer, in keeping with the gender they identify with. The company’s values and guidelines in the handling of benefits, name changes, back-office document changes and every other change that must be made are all laid out in black and white for all to see.

Steps for notifying managers and HR ahead of time, so every transitioning employee gets the support and respect he or she needs and deserves, are also detailed now.

“In one early case of ours,” said Breslin, “a manager was completely shocked and speechless for the entire day when an employee came in as a female after leaving the night before as a male. Clearly, everyone involved would have benefited from prior notification.”

Setting up an organization’s communication plan for transitioning transgenders is a complicated and sensitive process, and the ultimate goal should always be to avoid surprises, she said. Does a particular manager need guidance before meeting with employees to announce the change? Who will communicate it, the transitioning employee or the manager? Would the employee like to write a letter to his or her team instead? And should he or she read it and be there for the reaction, or should the manager go it alone, with that employee absent?

How all these issues are handled should be up to the discretion of each and every organization, said Breslin, but it’s imperative that all are addressed to “set the stage for how everyone will feel and might react.”

“It can also help avoid devastating outcomes,” she said.