Article by Sitira Williams and Ethan Salathiel
It’s ‘Transgender Awareness Week’ and we wanted to bring you an article to highlight the issues and share top tips for workplace transition and inclusion from a transperson’s lived experience.
Transgender people are people whose gender identity does not match with their assigned sex at birth, also referred to as biological sex. Trans’ or trans* with an asterisk is an abbreviation for ‘transgender’ to indicate the intention to be inclusive of gender non-conforming, expansive and non-binary identities. Those terms express gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine, but beyond the traditional gender roles that are associated with stereotypical gender norms.
Transitions throughout a trans persons life ultimately prompts a transition in the workplace, whether internally or externally. This is because workplace transitions involve a process of aligning personal norms with the norms of the workplace and sometimes those norms are not always compatible. Inclusion in the workplace serves a higher communicated development of meaning, which creates a more diverse image of the company, and helps boost productivity for both recruitment and retention of employees and customers.
Coaching and mentoring for Inclusion can create a safe space to explore new feelings in a holistic, systems-thinking way, throughout workplace transitions. This article aims to foster more understanding about the nature of transition using an example of a transgender person’s experience, but highlights how considering transition more generally can help people develop their resilience and other skills to further progress in all environments.
Transitions in the workplace
We all experience change all the time which generally begins with a trigger event followed by a period of adaptation and learning which is termed ‘transition’ or moving from one state of knowledge and awareness to another. For example; returners to work after parental leave, taking on a new role/promotion or changes with new management and leadership. Transition can be emotional or physical and transitions in the workplace are no different to transitions outside of our professional environment because both places are part of our lives.
Ethan brought both worlds together and transitioned physically in the workplace. He changed his exterior appearance – his body, bringing it into line with his mind. How did it feel? Here are Ethan’s lived experiences in the workplace:
1. Can you describe how it feels to transition at work? That is a difficult question to answer but it feels both empowering and exposing. Empowering because you are literally becoming your authentic self and gain great strength from aligning your core interior to your exterior, but also hopefully by doing something so personal, so openly, you help others to feel able to do so. It’s exposing because it is such an open and transparent experience, with what feels like ‘eyes on you’, watching to notice any small changes that occur. It’s also exposing due to having to navigate social areas and facilities in the workplace as well as ‘coming out’ repeatedly to different people who don’t understand what is happening or have not received ‘the brief’! That part is exhausting.
2. Did you have any coaching or mentoring at the time to help you? Sadly not. I had a largely positive experience transitioning whilst in a senior, global position at HSBC. I was the first transman to transition at the bank and as a result, developed the Trans* and Non-Binary Policy and improved the way things were done. At the time though, I was simply paired with an HR representative and that was the extent of the support. Luckily, I was part of the LGBTQ+ network, sitting on the HSBC Pride committee and also had a fantastic team which supported me and filled the gaps in any formal process. I’m pleased to say that the workplace has moved on even more since, and I know that those transitioning now have access to coaching, mentoring but also additional support where necessary. I know from recent dealings with an American bank that the physical and emotional transition is now sometimes covered as part of employee medical insurance. That is a very welcome development and demonstrates great progress.
3. What do you suggest organisations do to make the workplace more supportive of transition? I would suggest that all organisations give access to coaches and mentors to those people in gender transition but actually during transition more widely. New parents (of which I am also one!), taking on new roles of any kind or adapting to new ways of doing things can bring about additional stresses to achieving the balance. The impact of unconditional positive regard and active listening would be immensely positive in these scenarios. For me though, I believe it is an integrated and well-considered systems approach that will be of most help. The Employee Experience and journey needs to be mapped out and personalised depending on the type of transition. This could include a quieter café or lunch area to go to during the early days of change, a designated ‘safe space’ to occupy for reflection and a buddy system through reciprocal mentoring or coaching partnership to give the thinking space and social support needed throughout. I also believe that organisations could more thoroughly carry out briefing (with the person’s buy-in) the wider team so that the ‘cost of thinking twice’ and additional stress of explaining the ‘back-story’ to different audiences is removed. I think the main improvement in my mind is for organisations to think differently about the nature of transition and make it a positive experience for all involved.
In summary, transition in the workplace should be celebrated because it is actually something we all have in common. It’s time to embrace change, particularly in light of Covid19, and see transition in the workplace as a mechanism to improve the ways things are done, and demonstrate a dynamic set of skills, such as strategic thinking, innovation and resilience through inclusive and fair practices.
Coaching, Mentoring and Systems Thinking
Coaching and mentoring are both critical to the development of people from underrepresented and marginalised identity groups, and inclusive of trans* identities. Trans* friendly coaching and mentoring explores the best coping strategies for that individual, by taking back control and managing life effectively alongside self discovery.
Systems thinking is a process, language or set of tools to illustrate our thinking about how systems we are all a part of, operate and how best to navigate them. Trans* friendly coaching and mentoring includes systems which are put in place to help cope with gender normative restrictions and environments when exploring gender identity. Trans* people have voiced concerns about gender role expectations, the extent to which gender issues are discussed in the workplace or physical workplace navigation such as which bathroom to use when starting a new job. In such instances the coachee/mentor could act as an advocate to address the client’s needs by liaising with the workplace and/or external agencies such as health services, social workers, gender identity clinics, housing offices etc. This is because there are many gender identity policies in place within the work place which may not actually protect trans* people, because often the policies and the system(s) in place, are not fully understood by management, coworkers or other stakeholders at hand.
Inclusion & Diversity
Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) has actually been switched by many organisations to Inclusion and Diversity (I&D) on the premise that striving for inclusion should come first. This is a welcome change because embracing and understanding both ourselves and others should be our priority. With the shocking events of 2020 and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ global campaign, seeking to include individuals from a variety of different backgrounds in the workplace and beyond has never been more important.
Intersectionality is a relative new phrase now being used by the I&D and particularly the LGBTQ+ community. The term helps those individuals who do not want to identify with one or two binary groups and instead, break free from the ‘label’ or ‘box’. Intersectionality, therefore, articulates the need to look at multiple characteristics and identities, and how they overlap and intersect as a whole, to understand the lived experiences of others. For example, Ethan does not lead with being a Transman even though it is an aspect of him. He is also a husband, father, entrepreneur, friend and many other things. Not one element is ranked higher than the next because his identity is shaped by a diversity of experience. He actually describes himself as a ‘living system’ because it better defines who he is and how he thinks.
The I&D agenda has a crucial role to play in shaping the future of the workplace because it develops strategy, policies, procedures, training and events to improve the organisational culture in which people work. We are seeing more and more I&D teams using coaching and mentoring language and introducing programmes to support employees in transition. Inviting a coaching culture where people and teams are encouraged to develop coaching and mentoring skills for the better inclusion of everyone, is both an ethically and commercially advantageous. Prof. David Clutterbuck’s five stage ‘Diversity Awareness Ladder’ is instrumental to understanding one’s own and other’s level of diversity awareness. With this knowledge, we can help one another to have more positive conversations, improve social justice initiatives and navigate relationships better. After all, relationships are, by their very nature, transient and evolving.