By now all companies should have an adequate equal opportunities policy in place which includes sexual orientation and gender reassignment, two of the ‘protected characteristics’ under the Equality Act 2010. But is having an equal opportunities policy enough?
Just because your business may have such a policy tucked away in its company handbook, this doesn’t mean that everyone in your place of work has read it, understands it, or even knows it exists.
And, even if staff have read the company handbook, do they really understand the implications of not following its guidelines?
As an employer you have a legal duty to ensure that people with any of the protected characteristics are not discriminated against by fellow employees.
Employees and managers all know that discrimination regarding race or disability, for example, are illegal, but they may not be aware that treating a transgender employee differently also constitutes discrimination.
This may be because not every company has someone who is transitioning from one gender to the other. It’s not something which is the norm, so people tend to shun or shy away from things they haven’t dealt with before and which, in some cases, can make them feel uncomfortable.
How should a business owner deal with a situation like this?
The first thing to remember is that a transgender employee is a person like any other, and they should receive the same respect and fair treatment as any other employee.
All employees are different, which should clearly indicate that all transgender people are different. You should respect these differences and try to create a supportive environment for all employees.
Where you have an employee who is transitioning, they will have to live as their chosen gender for between one or two years prior to having any surgery. This means that the person will come to work as their chosen gender. In this case, you will need to speak with the individual to ascertain:
- How they’d like to be addressed – do they prefer he or she, for example?
- Which toilet facilities they would prefer to use
- How they would like this to be communicated to their colleagues – would they prefer a meeting conducted by their manager, information sent by email, or would they prefer to speak to their colleagues face-to-face?
This is the potential danger zone for employers. Hopefully, most employees will accept the situation, and perhaps some will want to be as helpful as they can.
However, there is a big risk that some employees may snigger, deliberately turn away from the individual, make derogatory comments or laugh as the individual passes, or generally make fun of the individual. This is harassment and must be stopped immediately, and employers can predict and prepare for these circumstances.
You may need to run a short training session on equality and diversity to get the message across.
The law states that anyone can use any toilet providing they are not causing a public nuisance. However, the problem employers may come across is that another worker may not feel very comfortable about having to share the toilet facilities with a transgender employee.
If this is the case, do not ask the transgender employee to use alternatives such as the disabled facilities, toilets on another floor, or do anything else which may single them out. This could be claimed to be discrimination on the grounds of gender reassignment.
Speak to the other employee in question and work out a temporary alternative for them. Of course, this may feel unfair to this employee, so you may need to monitor the situation to avoid any unnecessary conflict, harassment or bullying.
A happy, well-adjusted team is the goal
The aim is to create a tolerant environment which is acceptable to all, and one where all employees feel comfortable to be themselves, with the help of a few minor adjustments.
A big spin-off from this is a happy workforce, and a happy workforce normally leads to better morale, better communication and better productivity.