How to Make Your Workplace Safe and Inclusive for Trans and Nonbinary People

This month, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a landmark decision that finally makes it illegal for workers to be fired because of their queer sexual orientations or gender identities. After nonstop fighting for equity on this issue, at least 1.4 million trans people around the country can take a breath. Nevertheless, trans people will still face many hardships in their employment as a result of their gender identities.

Trans people deal with hiring discrimination and harassment in the office environment, such as deadnaming and misgendering. Additionally, transgender people who are undergoing gender transition in the middle of their employment have to manage legal name changes, medical changes, coming out to coworkers, concerns about when to disclose gender identity to hiring managers, supervisors, coworkers, and clients, and more.

According to a 2014 survey published by the Human Rights Campaign, 40% of transgender employees have heard derogatory jokes about trans people at work, 42% are afraid that they will be fired if they come out as trans at work, and 40% reported “fear for personal safety” as a reason for not disclosing their transgender identity at work. Because of these disturbing statistics, I believe that we all need continually seek out ways to protect our trans colleagues from interpersonal discrimination and take responsibility for making them feel safe at work.

Here are some recommendations for key practices you can do and policies you can advocate for within your organization to make it a safe and inclusive professional space for trans and nonbinary people. I’m a queer nonbinary person of color, and everything I’ve included here is based both on my personal experiences and from academic research about transgender issues and human resources policies.

This list is intended for both cis and non-cis people, as it can be implemented together in allyship. It is also non-exhaustive — in addition to employing what is outlined here, you must commit to having conversations with trans and nonbinary people about their diverse experiences in professional workspaces to learn what you can do to help reduce all discomfort and adversity for your peers.

I want to be clear — you shouldn’t only institute these practices if you are certain there is a non-cis individual in your organization. You shouldn’t only institute them if you suspect there are any non-cis folks. You should institute them uniformly, regardless of who works there and what their potential gender identities are. You should institute them even if your workplace is fully cis.

I haven’t distinguished personal practices and company polices here, because while you are firmly encouraged to speak to leadership about formalizing these, it is also you and your coworkers who will set these norms in everyday interactions and decisions.

Here’s what you and your organization should do:

  1. Abandon binary language and thinking, including cissexist and heterosexist assumptions.
  2. Normalizing asking for and introducing yourself with your pronouns.
  3. Include gender pronouns on name badges, email signatures, and professional profiles.
  4. Protect private personnel information including deadnames.
  5. Respect gender transitions socially, medically, and legally.
  6. Fight for gender-neutral restroom equity.

Abandon binary language and thinking, including cissexist and heterosexist assumptions.

Heterosexism and cissexism, which reinforce a strict cis male/cis female binary and erase queerness, can be very exclusionary for trans and nonbinary people. This binary thinking rears its ugly head in these kinds of assumptions:

  • Assuming someone’s gender identity.
  • Assuming the gender of their romantic partner.
  • Believing that there are only two sets of pronouns to identify individuals: he/him/his and she/her/hers.There are many sets of pronouns out there, and all of them are valid.
  • Assuming someone’s gender identity based on how masculine or feminine you judge their appearance to be.
  • Using gendered nicknames, titles, terms, to refer to peers.

For example, my former boss used to call me “Superwoman” as praise whenever he was impressed with my work. Since I’m nonbinary, this obviously made me uncomfortable, and I was able to convince him to call me “Captain Marvel” instead (yes, we stan Brie Larson in this house). More generally, you’re probably already familiar with the popular departure from gendered titles for professions, such as saying “fire fighter” instead of “fireman”, “congressmember” instead of “congresswoman”, and so on.

Every space will benefit from abandoning the binary, because it underpins putting everyone on a level playing field. It’s long past time to advance beyond patriarchal stereotypes that proliferate sexist culture and have prevented cis women in particular from professional advancement. In order to uplift individuals of all marginalized identities, these adversities should not be allowed to fester in organizations. Adopting a gender-neutral culture is a crucial element of equalizing workspaces.

Normalizing asking for and introducing yourself with your pronouns.

Pronoun sharing is an essential inclusive practice. When you meet new people or are facilitating introductions, be sure to lead by example in providing and asking for pronouns, regardless of your personal gender identity.

Here’s an example introductory interaction:

  • Person A: “Hi, my name is Madalyn Williams and my pronouns are they/them/theirs.”
  • Person B: “Nice to meet you! I’m T’Challa. My pronouns are he/him/his.”

And if you need to prompt them to provide their pronouns:

  • Person A: “Hi, my name is Madalyn Williams and my pronouns are they/them/theirs.”
  • Person B: “I’m Steve Rogers. It’s great to meet you.”
  • Person A: “Welcome to the team, Steve. What are your preferred pronouns?”

Side note: I personally favor just saying “pronouns” rather than “preferred pronouns”; “gender pronouns” is more acceptable to me. Some trans people believe that using the word “preferred” makes it sound like using those pronouns to refer to that person is optional, and I generally share that concern. However, I find that using “preferred pronouns” helps cis people who may be unfamiliar with the whole concept of pronoun sharing most quickly identify what I’m talking about without awkwardness.

Include gender pronouns on name badges, email signatures, and professional profiles.

The inclusion of gender pronouns on regularly used identification is another basic way to promote inclusion. It prevents the assumption of anyone’s gender identity and pronouns without having to directly discuss it. This is becoming a standard practice in countless businesses and organizations. Nonetheless, you may still have to get permission from your organization if they have a standard email signature format. Here are some example formats that you can show to them so they can determine what best matches their brand standards.

Furthermore, I use the gender-neutral prefix Mx. rather than Ms., Mrs., or Mr . — make sure a gender-neutral option is available if anyone is asked to provide their prefix on documents or IDs.

Protect private personnel information including deadnames.

Examine every element of your organization’s activities where private gender identity information could be exposed and implement policies to protect that information. For example, I work in recruitment, and I made sure my interview scheduling form asks for candidates’ preferred pronouns and preferred name, in case it doesn’t match the one on their application documents. I reassure them that that information will be kept private, in case they are not out in any of their personal circles, and put measures in place to make sure my coworkers take the same simple precautions.

And for the love of god, don’t out anyone as trans. I’ve seen transgender people accidentally outed to theirs peers as a result of easily preventable documentation slipups, which has consequences ranging from embarrassment to outright endangerment. No one deserves to have that happen to them.

Respect gender transitions, socially, medically, and legally.

Be respectful of your trans and nonbinary colleagues, and make sure that support is expressed both socially and institutionally.

  • Be accountable for your mistakes, but also patient with yourself if you are struggling to adjust to someone’s name and/or pronouns change. It takes practices to adjust, and that’s okay. You don’t need to make a big deal out of it if you mess up, you just need to correct yourself, apologize if you think it’s appropriate, and move on.
  • Seek clarity on their boundaries when it comes to sharing their chosen name and pronouns, without invading their privacy and asking invasive questions.
  • Don’t wait for a legal name change to update someone’s nameplate, email address, etc. to match their name. Trans and nonbinary people are who they say they are, regardless of whether this is reflected on any documents.

Fight for gender neutral restroom equity.

Due to COVID-19, it’s been a while since I’ve been in the office, but back when I was there every day, I chose to use the one gender neutral restroom on my floor — when it was available. (FYI, you have no right to know which restroom a trans or nonbinary person chooses to use — I’m choosing to share my choice personally, but no one is entitled to that information.)

Because this restroom was a catch-all accessible/single-stall/de facto gender-neutral one, many people (many cis people) chose to use it, for whatever their personal reasons that are no one’s business. I would often go to the restroom to find it occupied, despite knowing that the men’s and women’s restrooms definitely had plenty of available stalls. When this happened, I would discretely go into the stairwell and see if the single-stall on the floors above or below me were available.

But not everyone works in a building with multiple floors and therefore multiple neutral restrooms. We shouldn’t have to compete with anyone on the basis of our gender identity just to go do our business. We especially shouldn’t have to compete with people with disabilities who need those accessible restrooms as much as we do.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has determined that denying access to restroom facilities consistent with an individual’s gender identity constitutes discrimination. If your organization has inadequate restrooms or has blatantly unequal facilities, you need to — and have a right to — bring it up.

Right when I started at my current workplace, I was desperately ready to come out as nonbinary, and I was trying to find the courage to tell my family. I had no idea whether it would be safe to be out at my new workplace. If you are part of a marginalized group, whether it be mental illness, disability, sexuality, or gender, you have to read the signs in every setting you enter to determine whether it is safe for you to share that fundamental information about your body or your identity.

When I walked into my new office, the first thing that caught my eye among the grey cubicles was a small whiteboard with my coworker’s gender pronouns written on it. I felt like crying after reading those short, self-explanatory words. That literal sign pushed me to come out at home and online to my whole network of family and friends. The second day I went into work, I clarified what my pronouns are to my coworkers — the gender neutral they/them/theirs to match my nonbinary identity — and met two members of the organization who introduced themselves with their (likewise gender-neutral) pronouns and asked for mine.

I was overjoyed. I had allies, I wasn’t alone, and I was accepted as my true plain self by several of my peers. I would learn over time that my experiences as a nonbinary person at this organization wouldn’t be without challenges, but having that simple support and reassurance from the beginning equipped me with all the confidence I needed to continue to advocate for myself and other trans/nonbinary people at my workplace.

All of the practices that I have described here truly make a difference. You have the power now to change the culture of professional and social spaces to be more welcoming for your peers, and for everyone who comes after you. By adopting these practices, you will not only provide your coworkers with joy, but will provide them with safety from everyday discrimination.

Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions about anything I discussed here.

they/them. Black, queer, and nonbinary creative, policy wonk, and organizer.

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