Lately, some HR Consultants, bloggers, and congresspeople have been all atwitter about the concept of transgender employees at work.
The Employment Non Discrimination Act, (ENDA), which would protect gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered employees from discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, is currently stalled in the House of Representatives, in part because of some people's fears about, of all things, where transgendered employees will use the bathroom.
In celebrity news, Rachel Maddow, who is not transgendered but, like many people, falls somewhere outside the classic Barbie and Ken model of gender, was recently the subject of some widespread commentary when her high school yearbook picture showed that, in her teens, she fit western attractiveness standards much more closely than she does now. Maddow's leadership, courage, and wit are dismissed so that some anonymous poster could voice his opinion that “gender-appropriate” young Maddow would have been worthy of his no-doubt formidable romantic attentions.
Here's my take on gender at work.
Gender fetishism by supposedly “normal” people is far, far more distracting in the aggregate than the isolated cases of transgender transformation in the workplace. The Human Rights Campaign (pdf) states that the American Psychiatric Association believes that perhaps one in every 30,000 people born male, and one in every 100,000 people born female, seek sexual reassignment surgery.
The chance that you will ever work with a transgender employee who is in the transition period of his or her life is very, very small. Most people going through the very long, very tedious gender reassignment process, or people who live their entire lives somewhere between the two extremes of the man/woman gender continuum, want nothing more than to do their jobs and be treated fairly. But the chance that you will work with someone who distracts coworkers with extreme displays of the gender they
were born with is very, very high.
Anyone who has been in HR more than a year or two has had to have the “dress code” conversation with a female coworker determined to show off her gender-related assets. Just last week I talked to an HR friend who had to deal with a woman who wore a short skirt and no panties to work. The employee spent a good part of her day making copies and changing out paper. You can imagine how that turned out: office productivity took a nose dive. That's why, when I write dress codes, it usually says simply, “Please dress such that your work, and not what you wear, is what people notice. Dress in a way that doesn't distract clients or coworkers from your work contributions.”
Anyone who has worked in an office has seen that some managers are blinded by classic beauty, be it male or female. They (often completely unconsciously) show bias towards people who are conventionally pretty or handsome whether or not these hotties can get the job done, often very much to the downfall of their teams. I'm not suggesting that we all erase our humanity, but we unless we work where gender and sexuality are key margin drivers, we need to keep staff focused on the numbers, not coworker displays and judgments of attractiveness and gender conformity.
Let's give up the illusion that the conversation about which bathroom transgendered or transexual employees will use is anything other than, at best, voyeuristic and distracting, and at worst, just plain discrimination. If someone is transgendered, they've dealt with the interpersonal dynamics and bathroom logistics much, much longer than you, and they've got it covered.
As HR pros, we are supposed to help ensure that there is a clear line of sight between an employee's effectiveness and his or her ability to do well at our organizations. Other than maybe Hooters' waitresses, very few jobs require Barbie and Ken style gender extremism. Let's work together to help company managers disentangle their own gender conformity preferences from the requirements of the job, and the companies we help lead. Let's not allow ourselves, our managers, or our staff to get distracted from their jobs by gender and appearance matters, if in fact they don't matter, to our company profitability.
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