Transitioning In The Workplace

Jessica Manko and Tina Seitz co-presented Transitioning in the Workplace to share their stories of transitioning on the job and to share tips with others who are considering the same. BTL Photo by Crystal Proxmire

Transitioning in the workplace can be tricky, especially in Michigan where individuals can be fired without cause and LGBT people lack discrimination and hate crime protections.
"The last thing you want to do is leave work on a Friday as George and come back Monday as Gina," said Jessica Manko, who spoke at the Transgender Day of Empowerment at Affirmations this past April. "There is nothing legal in this in Michigan. Timing is very critical when you're coming out. When you're ready to do it, you'll want to tell them 30 days before you are going to begin transitioning at work."
Manko and Tina Seitz co-presented "Transitioning in the Workplace" to share their stories of transitioning on the job and to share tips with others who are considering the same. Though they worked in different capacities, Manko and Seitz both transitioned six years ago while working at General Motors.
"I had worked for the company off and on for over 20 years," Manko said. "It was a successful coming out and transition, even though there were bumps along the way."
The most important part of transitioning at work is giving the employer advance notice of the transition, Manko and Seitz agreed. "Doing this out of the blue without any cooperation with the management, they may say they don't want to deal with this and you could be digging yourself into a hole," Manko said. "They need time to wrap their head around this. They need time to talk to your coworkers to let them know what to expect."
They recommended giving at least 30 days notice before making the big change, longer if possible. This gives employers time to instruct fellow employees how to behave, but it also gives them time to adjust and ask questions.
"When I came out I told them, and they didn't have a clue. I had to explain it to them, and it took some time to sink in," Manko said.
Depending on the size and structure of the workplace, knowing whom to talk to first can make a big difference. Sometimes the Human Resource Department is the best place to start, other times it may be a manager or supervisor. Union reps can also be a good place to start, as many unions now push for transgender protections as part of their contracts. Bringing along materials that explain transitioning can be helpful, but face-to-face communication and being willing to answer questions is the best way to create understanding.
Seitz had challenges while she was transitioning, but she kept a level head and worked through them with her employer.
"First off, keep a journal and document the changes at work. Hopefully nothing happens and it's something you can throw away later. But in case you need to go to the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], it's good to have that documentation," Seitz explained.
"I was told that until I could document my surgery below the belt, I could only use the gender-neutral restroom. The only gender-neutral restroom there is, is all the way in the medical area and unless there are people being seen, it is always locked. I used it only once and said this isn't going to work. So I had a discussion with the policy manager. I said that if they had any question about what is discriminatory and what is not, just substitute another group for 'transgender' in the policy and see if it sounds right. Would you make someone use a different restroom because they had a different ethnicity? No? Then don't do it for a transgender person."
Another bump in the road for Seitz came when she took time off work to have facial surgery. The company asked her to take an extra week off because they weren't ready and wanted more time to talk to employees. "When I came back, my whole department had been re-organized. The first day I came in I had to move my desk and work with new people."
Having inclusive EEOC statements or other policies is no guarantee that employees will always be welcomed or treated fairly. Nor does having a local human rights ordinance ensure job security according to Manko. "If you're an employer and you want to violate it, you just pay a fine. It's nice and symbolic, but it has no teeth."
The ability to handle the bumps in the road with class can make the difference between keeping or losing a job. Both presenters said that humor and a self-deprecating demeanor were helpful.
"Personally I've always been a smartass, so I would really screw with the guys at work and it was lots of fun. And they didn't have to worry that they couldn't talk in front of me," Seitz said. "You've gotta know your audience obviously, but it's ok to have fun with this."
One transgender woman in the audience said that when she came to work after transitioning, she would curtsey to others to break the tension.
Another recommendation was that when people transition, they make their wardrobe changes gradually and dress in line with what other men or women in the workplace are wearing. "The key word being conservative," Manko said. "Especially we ladies. When we come out we tend to buy clothes that are more provocative. I had an engineering job and the women in the office wore slacks. Most women don't wear dresses to work now a days. Watch what your co-workers wear. You don't have to copy their sense of fashion, but it should be a guide."
In addition to the concerns over workplace culture, there are legal considerations when transitioning on the job. Keeping the payroll department informed when there is a name change is important. It's also a good idea to make sure employment files have both a legal name and preferred name documented. Insurance and medical histories should also be kept up to date, and hospitals should be asked to "merge" medical histories with the pre-transition files as opposed to starting new files.
Someone in the audience also recommended that transgender individuals not get too excited about their name changes and burn their own records. "Keep them in a lock box somewhere because you never know what will happen and you may need to verify who you are," they said.
Within the last few years there has been a great increase in the acceptance of transgender workers, particularly in large corporations. And in terms of discrimination, the EEOC is in the process of trying to set legal precedence for transgender discrimination to fall under the category of sex. Keeping up with the latest advancements in the LGBT equality movement, knowing one's rights, connecting with support and advocacy groups and having the number for a good attorney can help transgender people navigate the difficult task of transitioning in the workplace.