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Understanding & Addressing Transgender Employees’ Workplace Experiences: A Critical Imperative for Employers

With the public gender transitions of celebrities like Caitlin Jenner, greater visibility of transgender characters on television (e.g., Transparent), and controversial laws enacted in some U.S. states and cities banning transgender employees from accessing bathrooms that align with their gender identities, issues of gender expression have been thrust into the national spotlight.

Importantly, the term “transgender” does not refer to sexual preference, but rather to those who do not adhere to the traditional male-female binary or who feel their gender identity does not align with gendered expectations related to their birth sex. Because gender is likely the most fundamental social identity that people use to classify themselves and others, transgender individuals often face unique and difficult challenges at work that stem from their deviation from entrenched societal gender norms (e.g., conflicts related to their bathroom usage, backlash over transitioning genders, being “misgendered” by coworkers) and a general lack of public awareness compared to their LGB peers.

 

In fact, recent findings from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS; National Center for Transgender Equality, 2011), the largest survey dedicated specifically to transgender people's lived experiences, revealed that 97% of respondents reported some form of mistreatment or discrimination at work. This is compared to an estimated 42% of gay employees who have experienced discrimination of some form in the workplace (Center for American Progress, 2012). In particular, results of the NTDS showed that 50% of participants reported being harassed at work; 47% reported an adverse job outcome, including being fired or denied a promotion; 32% felt forced to act “traditionally gendered” to keep their jobs; and 22% were denied access to appropriate bathrooms. As such, despite federal provisions prohibiting discrimination based on gender under the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as many state and local laws, for many transgender people, going to work is a highly stressful experience, of which we know little about from a psychological perspective.

The largest survey dedicated specifically to transgender people's lived experiences revealed that 97% of respondents reported some form of mistreatment or discrimination at work, compared to 42% of gay employees.  For many transgender people, going to work is a highly stressful experience, of which we know little about from a psychological perspective.

Adding to a small, but growing, body of research on transgender employees' work experiences, I, along with my coauthors, Dr. Katina Sawyer (Villanova University) and Jennica Webster (Marquette University), recently published a study in the Journal of Vocational Behavior that examined the cognitions that shape these individuals' workplace experiences. Drawing on established literature on paranoia, we examined the role of paranoid cognition – defined by hypervigilance, rumination, and sinister attributional tendencies – in explaining why transgender employees' experiences of discrimination at work impact their job attitudes and emotional health. Although often viewed as a product of factors internal to people (i.e., psychopathology), contemporary theory and research afford significantly greater attention to the environmental causes of paranoid thinking. Indeed, the striking prevalence of paranoid thoughts in the general population suggests they are normal responses to highly uncertain social environments where failures at threat detection may be highly costly, including the workplace. As such, it is important to view paranoid thinking not simply as a reflection of individuals and their mental makeup, but rather as a normal response that people of different backgrounds may experience under

conditions of social threat and uncertainty. Nevertheless, although paranoid thinking may be functional to some degree, it is psychologically draining and thus tends to do more harm than good to individuals.

 

Drawing on a sample of 118 transgender employees recruited through a large health-related conference in the Philadelphia area, perceptions of transgender discrimination in the workplace were positively related to participants’ experiences of paranoid cognition at work; paranoid cognition was positively related to transgender employees' turnover intentions and emotional exhaustion and negatively related to their job satisfaction; and paranoid cognition at work statistically explained the relationships between perceptions of discrimination and each of these outcomes. Additionally, we collected interview data from some of our participants that highlight their ongoing experiences at work. Below are some example responses:

  • “Situations where I have negative experiences, I feel really intense and afraid. A lot of time, I'm apprehensive about going to work. There's this incredible emotional weight that comes from always having to guard what I say, always having to guard what I do, always having to be vigilant. It is incredibly emotionally exhausting to do that for so long” (Transgender woman, education).

  • “It [prejudicial remarks] just makes me constantly ruminate and second guess everything I do at work. I'm often just scared to death, worried, and just constantly questioning myself and everything… it makes it [work] that much harder” (Transgender woman, education).

  • “I feel like I'm being put under a microscope by a lot of people. There was an evening where we all had to go to a student awards ceremony. I had to be on stage to give out an award to a couple of my students. I started having an anxiety attack, and I walked out and went home cause I couldn't stand to be there anymore. I could see people kind of look at me, and I don't know if I was reading into it too much, but it felt like these people didn't want me there and they knew they were getting rid of me. I don't think I realized how much it would hurt, how much it really, really hurt. I felt like my whole reputation was being attacked, like they were just ripping me apart” (Transgender woman, education).

From a practical standpoint, our findings are timely given recent controversial legislation enacted in certain U.S. states and cities that remove protections from workplace discrimination based on gender identity, such as denying transgender employees access to bathrooms that match their gender identities. The present investigation suggests organizations that allow discrimination toward transgender workers to persist create threatening workspaces that may contribute to their experiences of paranoid cognition at work and, in turn, harm their job attitudes and wellbeing. However, as King and Cortina (2010) argued and consistent with the notion of corporate social responsibility, in return for the benefits of incorporation, all organizations have a fundamental duty to address the needs of the society in which they are incorporated, including an obligation to implement policies and procedures that protect against discrimination based on gender identity.

 

Furthermore, our findings should also be troubling to organizations from an economic standpoint. Indeed, research has consistently linked job dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion to decreased job performance and higher turnover. In particular, according to a study by the Level Playing Field Institute (2007), more than two million U.S. employees turn over each year as a result of unfairness, costing employers $64 billion annually. As such, in addition to exposing themselves to costly lawsuits, companies that fail to address gender identity discrimination limit their ability to retain or attract talented transgender workers, outcomes that harm the bottom line.

Research has consistently linked job dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion to decreased job performance and higher turnover.  As such, companies that fail to address gender identity discrimination limit their ability to retain or attract talented transgender workers, outcomes that harm the bottom line.

Overarchingly, our findings can only be viewed as disturbing in that they highlight the “personal hell” that many transgender individuals may suffer through while working in hostile or otherwise unsupportive work environments. In particular, our findings should be especially troubling to employers, both in terms of retaining talented transgender workers and with respect to the basic responsibility that all organizations have to protect the welfare of their employees. Although the present study represents an important step in illuminating the work experiences of transgender employees, it is important that future studies continue to examine this unique population in the workplace. In so doing, it is our hope that such research will serve to spread further awareness and acceptance of transgender individuals at work and equip both individuals and organizations with the knowledge and skills necessary to improve the work lives of this important population.

Christian Thoroughgood, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about him here!

 

Photos by Ted Eytan, posted under Creative Common license.

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