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Lynne Curry: Handling the workplace transition when Mark becomes Marcia

Lynne Curry

Q: I oversee three departments in a company without an HR officer. Our project coordinator is a wizard with spreadsheets and a stickler for details. Without him we’d be a ship run amuck.

He’s also an odd duck. I’m glad he’s out of sight of our customers because his appearance takes getting used to. He has manicured fingernails, plucked eyebrows and sometimes wears face powder. He’s also moody and rude. He walks away from co-workers when they’re talking to him and stares off into space without listening during staff meetings. When I’ve asked him about this he says, “If the topic doesn’t interest me, it’s a waste of time.”

Three months ago during a routine job review, he told me he would be undergoing surgery to change into a woman, and his surgeon recommended we call him Marcia. I didn’t know what to say.

This morning, the head of one of our departments came to me and said I needed to know Mark was using the female bathroom and several female employees were now taking an elevator to another floor’s restroom. I discussed this problem with Mark, and he became indignant. He also gave me a printed recommendations sheet from his physician that included his using the female restroom.

How do I handle this?

A: In the past two decades, more than 200,000 individuals have elected surgery to change from male to female or female to male. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination based on transgender status.

Further, President Obama’s July 21, 2014, executive order specifically bans sexual orientation and gender identification discrimination among all employers holding federal contracts.

Although no Alaska law addresses transgender rights, the U.S. Supreme Court set a partial precedent in the landmark 1989 Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins decision. When the accounting firm denied Ann Hopkins the right to become partner because she dressed and acted in a masculine manner, the Supreme Court ruled in Hopkins’ favor and against sexual stereotyping.

Multiple employers, among them American Airlines, IBM, Chevron, Xerox, Safeway, Costco, Walgreens, Nike and Aetna have implemented policies protecting transsexuals, those who choose sexual identities different than the one in which they were born and raised, from co-worker or employer discrimination.

As an employer, you need to get ahead of the power curve on this issue. If you don’t, you potentially face worsening morale among employees or a hostile work environment claim from Marcia.

As you’ve learned, restroom usage can be a hot topic. Most employers allow transgender employees to use the restroom that corresponds to the employees’ gender identity and full-time gender presentation. No-cost arrangements such as asking Marcia to use a single-stall bathroom with a locked door or ensuring that restroom stalls provide adequate privacy can make the situation more palatable.

Many employers work with the transgender employee to create a “disclosure memo,” as long as the transgender employee agrees. These start with a statement such as, “Our company is committed to treating all employees with respect and dignity,” outline the date the anticipated “transition” is to take place and address issues such as restroom usage and “please refer to Mark as Marcia.”

Because some co-workers have strongly held beliefs about transsexuals, disclosure memos often add, “We don’t require that you accept transgendering but do ask that you treat Marcia and other employees with respect.”

Finally, those who “feel at home in their own skin” ordinarily perform better than those who feel “not quite right” about their identity. Some of Mark’s former behaviors, such as staring off into space, may fall away now that she has the chance to live in the sexual identity that feels right to her. If they don’t, you need to address them. They’re tinder and Marcia’s transition may light the fire.