For managers and HR professionals, gearing-up mentally to support an employee with their workplace gender transition can be unsettling and even unnerving.  “Getting it right” may always be a worry in the back of our minds.  Even companies with positive gender transition policies and guidelines cannot account for the multitude of subtle differences in a particular person’s circumstances, needs, and wishes, and so there is always some level of apprehension.

However, this article is not really about all that. Since executing a transition plan often generates anxieties for everyone involved, there is a big natural sigh when the plan approaches its final phase.  Hopefully, the outcome is “it went okay,” so we should all feel good now…  When you get to this point, though, make a note on your calendar to soon revisit what is all too often now looming on the horizon – a period of unintentional isolation for the *new* person.

Unintentional isolation

After the dust begins to settle from the coming out process at work, a trans person typically becomes acutely aware of how others may have started changing their behavior.  All co-workers may go through some form of shock at the outset of the person’s coming out process, but afterward, real changes in various co-workers’ patterns will not go unnoticed.

Before coming out, most trans people know they will be risking rejection from certain family members, abandonment from some long-time friends and colleagues, and maybe ridicule from a few once-friendly neighbors.  There is a certain amount of emotional preparation for those harsh realities.  Still, relationships that withstand the initial shock can begin to erode, and that erosion can lead to painful periods of unintentional isolation.

Unintentional isolation usually results from unconscious or semi-conscious feelings – feelings that the trans person’s *new* identity is just too much to handle.  For many co-workers, feeling this way becomes a source of anxiety in their own lives – they do not want to feel this way about their *old* friend, but they do, and they do not really know what to do about it.  They tell themselves that their *new* friend will probably not enjoy going to that sports bar (or tea room) anymore, or that they probably will be giving up golf (or crafting). As a result, invitations for those previously enduring activities go undelivered.  And to make matters worse, newly-out trans people tend to be safe and not risk outright rejection by trying to re-initiate these activities themselves.

As managers and HR professionals, the point of this article is to show what may be looming after the transition plan document is put away, regardless of its apparent level of success.  You cannot really do much about what happens between co-worker relationships, but if a trans person experiences too much isolation, even if it is mostly unintentional, they may still give up and leave.  Also, if you are not specifically tracking the retention rate for these employees, start now.  If you find later that these retention times are only months rather than years, you probably are not doing enough to support them.

What else can you do?  Here are three potential counter-isolation strategies:

  1. Offer them opportunities for higher personal visibility, including:
  • Moving into a more open office or high-traffic area
  • Assigning them to the busiest shifts and/or break schedules
  • Inviting them to help host the office’s holiday pot-luck
  1. Support opportunities for higher professional visibility, including:
  • Sending them to conferences to meet other transgender professionals
  • Nominating them for company Diversity & Inclusion leadership counsels
  • Encouraging them to publish articles or whitepapers
  1. Spend some extra time with them, and simply encourage them!
  • Letting them know you care through your actions, not just your words
  • Finding out about any *new* hobbies and personal interests
  • Reassuring them that when they need to talk about something, you will make time to listen

Becoming more visible gives a trans person a greater sense of inclusion (provided that negative bias is first removed from the workplace).  The more time that a trans person spends interacting with others in a positive way, the more at ease everyone will become.  In contrast, when isolation begins to set in, a trans person can become increasingly guarded and withdrawn.

It is worth repeating: “The more time that a trans person spends interacting with others in a positive way, the more at ease everyone will become.”  Also, mark your calendars with a big “TDOV” on the next Transgender Day of Visibility and make that day live up to its purpose.

Copyright © 2018 Inclusive Research LLC

About the Author

Kay Mason

Kay Mason founded and manages Inclusive Research and, a niche consulting/services firm devoted to improving the experiences of transgender customers at Fortune 1000 retailers, restaurants, and hotels.  She is also a volunteer education panelist for theTransgender Resource Center of New Mexico, and she serves as an officer and board member for theCommon Bond New Mexico Foundation.

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