OPINION: Companies must fight transphobia in the workplace

by Maria Chadwick | Stephensons Solicitors
Thursday, 30 January 2020 09:58 GMT

Protestors hold up placards during the first ever Trans Pride March in London, Britain September 14, 2019. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Many transgender workers have experienced discrimination and harassment in the workplace

Maria Chadwick is partner and discrimination department manager at Stephensons Solicitors

Both inside and outside of work, the transgender community often encounters negativity. Reported inequality among British employers could mean that half of the trans and non-binary community have hidden or disguised their status. According to LGBT+ rights group Stonewall, one in eight have been physically attacked by a colleague or customer.

It is understood that many transgender workers have experienced direct and indirect discrimination and even harassment whether intentional or otherwise in the workplace.

Issues faced by the transgender community

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination against people with the protected characteristic of gender reassignment. Although this provides a measure of protection, there are calls for this law to be strengthened further to address the apparent inequality experienced.

For example, employers denying authorisation of absences for related medical appointments, employers issuing and implementing inappropriate uniform policies with a view to challenging current employee relations and company cultures, which can leave staff members feeling compromised.

For existing employees who are transitioning they may experience a change in attitude from colleagues and management, and on an administrative level, a new identity might not be immediately and correctly recognised by the human resources (HR) department or the British tax authorities, which can be extremely difficult to deal with.

Common discrimination cases

Legal complaints of discrimination in job interviews or at work are very common amongst the transgender community. However, employers generally deal with these types of complaints by agreeing a non-disclosure settlement before legal proceedings or immediately after the issue of a claim in an employment tribunal, in order to protect the company’s reputation and block further conversations to avoid negative publicity.

Furthermore, it is considered that many cases go unreported due to the humiliation felt by the individual and some may decide not to bring attention to their situation for fear of affecting future employment. As a firm we have seen an increase in the amount of complaints raised over the past few years, as more cases are reported in the media, highlighting the issue more widely.

Employer obligations

As an employer you are legally bound to protect staff going through gender transition at work from discrimination through support and reasonable action being taken such as offering time off for any related appointments and always communicating through HR, on a team level and with customers (where appropriate.)

Name badges, new names, email addresses and photos should be adapted and uniforms, dress codes and relevant provisions for appropriate facilities should be assigned. 

To fail to take such steps could give cause for complaints of discrimination and potentially legal action.

Employee rights

If you are an employee wanting to or in the process of transition you must communicate this with your line manager. You have a number of legal rights that you should familiarise yourself with including the right to privacy.

You and your manager should then look to agree a support plan with HR in writing and communicate over any absence. You will need to decide when and how you will transition at work and agree clothing and update personal details. HR must be aware throughout and if an employee leaves, their reference must comply with legislation.

Pay-outs from companies

Well-known high street brands tend to prefer to bring inequality complaints to a swift conclusion through financial settlement, in order to avoid any negative publicity. It is generally more financially advantageous to pay out a financial sum at an early stage (making sure a non-disclosure agreement has been signed) to side-step litigation costs, as well as protecting reputational damage.

The one positive step forward in the case of Ava Moore – a trans woman who won a £9,000 ($11,700) settlement from clothing store Debenhams in January following from her complaint of gender reassignment discrimination – is that the British retailer has reaffirmed its commitment to encouraging inclusion at all levels within its business, regardless of gender.

Other big businesses must now pave the way to improve employee equality and take this stance on gender, so companies of all sizes will follow suit.