By MELISSA MESKE
Throughout history, uprisings by employees over unsafe working environments, inequity in pay, racial and age discrimination and sexual harassment have repeatedly been met with labor negotiations, increased opportunities, better policies and improved practices.
Today’s workplace, however, is seeing a transition that just might be its greatest challenge to fairness and equality yet. Employers are now being challenged with providing appropriate, legal and fair guidance and protection to employees on a whole new level, as transgender people seek acceptance and respect from co-workers and customers alike.
In Illinois, there are laws that protect against discrimination on the basis of gender identity. If a company is not proactive in its policymaking, handling transgender issues can become problematic.
So, how should a company handle it when an employee that was hired in as “Joseph” comes in to work one day and informs management that she is transitioning as a transgender woman whose name is now “Jody?”
Walmart is one such company embracing the change. “This is that place” has become a new corporate mantra inside one of the country’s largest employers.
Managers and employees from throughout Walmart’s St. Louis market region recently gathered at the main campus of Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey to learn more about how to manage and support transgender employees and their co-workers.
In a training presentation co-sponsored by Lewis and Clark, its Veterans Club and LC Pride, managers and associates from Walmart stores sat beside students, faculty, other workforce stakeholders and community members to take a realistic look at the issue.
Walmart Market Manager Jim Olsen facilitated the two-hour presentation, “Transgender: Transitioning in the Workplace.” Other presenters included Carrie Wiggins talking about transgender patient care from a pharmacy and vision center perspective; Frankie Travis and Lisa Cheek presenting information regarding non-discrimination laws and workplace policies; and Jamie Tylka, who provided guidelines for managing workplace gender transitions.
New verbiage related to transgender people was introduced, and companies nationwide were urged to learn and embrace it. For example, Olsen identified himself as genderfluid.
“What that means is that I identify as both male and female, and that can change from day to day,” Olsen said.
Throughout the presentation, gender transition was defined as the process by which transgender people move toward living in the gender they personally identify as. Sometimes this involves medical treatment, but more often does not. Sometimes identification documents are changed as transgender people choose legal name changes to better reflect the gender of which they identify. The transition at work happens differently depending on the employee.
“It is common to tell one’s supervisor first, and develop a timeline,” said Olsen. “In other cases, a transitioning employee starts presenting in a more masculine or feminine way and their co-workers take notice.” Olsen added that the transition process can be very difficult, not only for the transgender employee, but for the co-workers who may not understand or be accepting.
Skylar Heinle, a transgender female employee who also serves as an academy coordinator at Walmart’s training facility in St. Charles, Mo., joined Olsen on stage to talk about her workplace transition experience.
“I felt it as early as age 8, but I was 24 before I started transitioning,” she said. Given the nature of gender fluidity, the idea of the workplace being gender binary, or only having two genders, “is outdated, even by the medical community,” she said.
Heinle said that the medical community has begun to identify a person as both the gender assigned or designated at birth, as well as their transgender identity or as a cisgender person (when one’s sense of personal identity aligns with their biological birth identification). Further noting that there are two types of transitioning, social and medical, Heinle talked about the importance of learning a transgender co-worker’s preferred pronouns as a part of acceptance and non-discrimination.
Statistics presented during the training session show the challenges faced by transgender people, 89 percent of whom are said to be discriminated against. Fifty-one percent are not hired, 28 percent lost a job after choosing to transition and 23 percent are denied promotion.
Some 9 percent have been denied bathroom access that aligns to their transgender identity, 12 percent have been verbally harassed while in the bathroom, 24 percent have had their bathroom usage challenged, 59 percent have avoided using a public restroom altogether. Then, there’s the 32 percent who have limited food and drink to avoid the need to go.
The workplace is beginning to address the issue proactively, and Heinle noted the recent rollout of a smartphone app known as “Refuge,” which identifies nearby gender-neutral bathroom facility locations on a GPS-generated map.
A 2016 story in the Chicago Tribune told the tale of a transgender woman who worked for an Illinois Hobby Lobby retail store. When she told her managers that she planned to formally transition, their response was acceptance — perhaps unexpected given Hobby Lobby’s conservative Christian position overall.
The company was accepting to the point that her name was readily changed on her personnel records and with her benefits package. However, when it came to facility usage, she was informed that she would not be able to utilize the women’s restroom.
Initially, she would limit what she ate and drank in order to reduce the need to use the restroom before lunchtime, when she could run across the street to a restaurant where she could use the women’s restroom. When the wait was impossible, she would slip in and out of the men’s restroom at her workplace in a manner where customers wouldn’t see her.
But finally, she took next steps that would lead to a permanent transition for her workplace as well. She filed complaints with the Illinois Human Rights Commission, alleging discrimination in employment and public accommodations. An administrative judge made an initial finding that discrimination had occurred and damages were under determination. Meanwhile, the Hobby Lobby store added a unisex bathroom that the employee could use, but she was still not allowed to use the women’s restroom, according to the Tribune story.
Rob Woolsey is a leadership council member for the St. Louis and Rocky Mountain chapters of Out & Equal, a nonprofit aimed at helping employers develop or enhance their LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex) policies and practices at the local level. A volunteer with the O & E organization, Woolsey has been helping employers for the last 10 years and is also employed at the Bayer Crop Science (formerly Monsanto) campus in Creve Coeur, Mo.
“There are an estimated 5.4 million LGBTQI workers in the U.S.,” Woolsey noted. “Employees who have transitioned, or are out, can be good for business. Out employees demonstrate better physical and mental health, and 20 to 30 percent are more productive than their closeted counterparts. They are often more loyal and more satisfied.”
Developing workplace allies is important. According to Woolsey, an ally is a member of the majority who works to end oppression of any minority through support of and advocacy for the oppressed population. LGBTQI allies help educate co-workers about issues transgender employees face, they speak up in support of workplace equality and they help facilitate the workplace’s movement toward acceptance.
There are several resources that employers can tap into to learn more on transgender issues, including Woolsey’s Out & Equal nonprofit organization (outandequal.org), PFLAG (pflag.org) and the Human Rights Campaign (hrc.org).