’Harvard Business Review’ tackles trans issues in the workplace

by Ethan Jacobs

Bay Windows

Saturday December 20, 2008

The Harvard Business Review (HBR), which reaches an elite readership of corporate CEOs and high-level executives, published a case study in its December issue highlighting the issues that companies face when an employee announces plans to change his or her gender.

The case study focuses on the efforts of a fictional human resources executive, Henrietta Mercer, at a chemical company working to manage the company's response to a star employee's gender change from male to female. Loren Gary, one of the case study's co-authors, said that when he and co-author Brian Elliot interviewed human resources professionals they found that transgender inclusion has become a cutting edge issue within the H.R. field. The authors hope that by presenting the issue in such an influential publication they will put it on the radar screens of senior management in companies across the country.

"As we started to talk to experts in the field, for example human resources lawyers, they told us that the part of their practice that was growing the fastest was companies that had concerns about their employees transitioning," said Gary, who is associate director of leadership development and public affairs at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Gary and Elliot portray Mercer and the fictional company as supportive of employee Steve Ambler's gender change. Mercer never considers firing Ambler, and despite her concerns about how his coworkers and clients will react, one of her top priorities is ensuring that Ambler is able to transition successfully in the workplace. Gary said he and Elliot found that same desire to retain transgender workers among the H.R. professionals they interviewed in their research from companies like Raytheon and Prudential.

"In this environment companies want to make sure that they're doing nothing to put off or scare away potentially excellent talent," said Gary. H.R. executives from Raytheon and Prudential provided commentaries to the case study, as did Stasha Goliaszewski, a transgender employee at Boeing.

Both Gary and Elliot were new to the topic of transgender workplace issues before they began work on the case study. Elliot, a student in a joint degree program between the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, said when they began designing a proposal for an HBR case study their initial plan was to study questions around benefits for employees in a domestic partnership, civil union, or same-sex marriage, but the editors at HBR turned them down; Elliot said HBR prefers to focus its case studies on cutting edge or controversial issues, and with an increasing number of companies providing benefits to their employees' same-sex partners a case study on domestic partnerships and civil unions seemed too tame. Elliot, who is co-president of Harvard Business School's LGBT Student Association, said they decided to change their focus to trans employment issues.

Despite HBR's reputation for publishing cutting edge case studies Elliot said that before their study on gender changes it had been over a decade since HBR had published a case study on LGBT issues. Back in 1993, inspired by the debate around the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, HBR presented a case study about a superstar employee demanding the right to bring his partner to the company holiday party. Today there is no shortage of Fortune 500 companies that protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, but at the time the corporate world considered such a question controversial. Elliot said when he and Gary proposed their gender change case study they urged the editors at HBR to embrace the question of transgender inclusion as the next important workplace diversity issue.

"I said, 'Okay, if you want to push the envelope like you did in 1993, trans issues are the next frontier.' ... Ultimately I was very proud of them for accepting that pitch," said Elliot.

Trans issues may seem like the next frontier to some companies, but in researching their case study Elliot and Gary found that for other companies the gender changes are old news. In the commentary section following the case study Linda Taylor, an H.R. executive at Raytheon Missle Systems in Tucson, explains that in her seven years on the job she has overseen three gender changes, and she said her predecessor was aware of at least four others. Beginning in 2005 she worked to create a standard procedure to accommodate gender changes, leading gender identity training sessions for employees and instituting rules to ensure that coworkers use appropriate pronouns and names. Taylor writes that despite the defense company's often conservative military customers, they have faced few problems when transgender employees interact with customers.

"Of the three people who most recently transitioned at Raytheon, two (both engineers) have had a lot of contact with both internal and external clients," writes Taylor. "We are a technology company that specializes in defense, homeland security, and other government markets. Not one military customer has behaved badly to our faces. I suspect this 'business as usual' attitude has something to do with the fact that the military is less concerned about who makes the equipment that protects our men and women in uniform than about how the products work in the field."

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), said the positive response of companies like Raytheon and Prudential to employees transitioning in the work place is no surprise. According to NCTE about 200 of the Fortune 500 companies protect employees from discrimination based on gender identity or expression.

"More and more when a trans person comes out they're likely to be in an organization or company that has already dealt with it, or to know someone who's dealt with it," said Keisling.

Gary and Elliot's case study shows that even employers who want to support their transgender employees may have some concerns about the impact of a gender change on the workplace. In the case study Mercer struggles to respond to one of Ambler's coworkers who has strong moral objections to Ambler's transition, and she worries about how the company's customers will respond to Ambler. Gary said Mercer's concerns mirror what he and Elliot found in their research.

"Three areas of concern, one is the employee transitioning, and certainly in terms of the H.R. executives we spoke with that was essential, to let the transitioning employee as much as possible drive the process. ... [The other areas are] concern for customers, and then concern for the rest of the workforce would be the three," said Gary.

Keisling said the experience of companies like Raytheon and Boeing suggest that fears about negative reactions from coworkers and customers are generally unwarranted.

"It's just one more diversity issue, and it's something companies are going to be dealing with. You could pull out this same case study over the years for any kind of person you could imagine: immigrants, Jews, gays, blacks, women. ... It's just the same old thing," said Keisling. "One of the things we see a lot is people are a lot more worried about what other people will think than what they think."

Elliot said he hopes the case study will serve as a resource for transgender people and their allies working towards inclusion in the workplace.

"I hope that it serves to legitimize trans issues in the workplace. Now that it's out there there's a resource that can be used by trans folks in the business community, by trans allies in the business community, that they can take to a CEO when these issues arise or before these issues arise and say, 'This is an issue, it's in HBR,'" said Elliot.

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