Picture this: You are sitting at the head of a long table in a conference room packed with 20 people. A couple of your closer co-workers sit near you, while the rest of the room is filled with unfamiliar faces, staring blankly at you. No one really knows why this meeting is happening.
I was in this position very recently when I decided to call a meeting to come out as transgender to my workplace—a major pharmaceutical company where I had already been working a long time, and where the last person to transition there did so about 10 years ago.
Unfortunately, we live in a society where we are constantly told to cultivate “work-life balance,” as though our work and our personal lives are entirely separate. Yet the idea of “life” being entirely separate from “work” can lead to unrealistic expectations about how much of yourself you need to leave out of the office.
When I first decided to transition on the job, I looked to the Human Resources policy guidebook. The book suggested bringing in an outside “sensitivity speaker” to talk to co-workers on my behalf; it also said that an employee’s coming out is an opportunity to reinforce harassment policy edicts. In fact the whole section essentially suggested taking a very personal issue and make it as clinical and impersonal as possible.
In my mind, coming out at work should be made as personal as possible—so you can assert your voice and include yourself in the process of educating your coworkers. Being intentional in this admittedly challenging process is another way to really own your transition and act with confidence!
With that, here are my five tips for coming out at work.
1. Figure out the basic narrative you want to communicate.
Even though up to 9 million people across the United States self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, most Americans aren’t really sure what it means to exist in a non-heteronormative, non-cisgendered world. Ignorance and lack of education are the main reasons that making it personal when it comes to coming out at work is so important.
This is an opportunity for you to be authentic, to find your own truth about transitioning—asking yourself the most basic questions like, “Why am I transitioning?” This will help you figure out the narrative you wish to share with others. You may choose to talk about your history with gender identity, or keep things in the present.
Speak in the first person, with confidence and openness. Remember to keep general facts to a minimum, such as basic prevalence statistics (e.g. only 0.3% of American adults are transgender, according to a commonly cited UCLA study). Don’t make this a “pity party” by merely sharing negative stats about discrimination and policy inequity. (By the way: there is conclusive data that corporations that invest in diversity have a competitive topline advantage over their peers!)
2. Establish a concrete and realistic communications game plan.
Having a plan is really all about establishing a concrete and strategic communications approach.
I recommend starting first with one-on-one meetings, as people are more receptive to vulnerability in this context.
- Start with your immediate manager. From there, set up meetings with:
- Your human resources representative
- Your manager’s manager (if applicable)
- Coworkers with whom you spend a lot of time
After you complete your one-on-one meetings, it will be much easier for you to set up group meetings that will help you streamline your communication and prevent the inevitable drift of gossip:
- Start with coworkers in your larger defined group team or division. From there, set up group conversations with:
- Senior leadership governance teams
- Functional groups of your counterparts in a matrix organization.
TIP: Invite people from previous one-on-one’s to support you at the group meetings to help neutralize potential negative or unhelpful responses.
Finally, it’s a good idea to draft an open letter about your transition so that you’re able to disseminate this this information to all other co-workers (which you may agree to as part of a plan with Human Resources, aka HR). You may want to use this letter as a reply to people whom you never had direct communication with, or feel free to send it to external vendors/customers as you see fit as well.
Everyone will have their own approach to their one-on-ones, group meetings, and email letters, but in all cases I think it’s best to keep the facts simple and non-emotional. You may choose to share the clinical definition of “transgender” or provide an informal timeline about your transition in these meetings, noting things such as planned changes to your physical appearance (and hormonal therapy), and of course, name and pronoun changes.
3. Execute the game plan with realistic expectations.
Once you have all this planned, the execution feels much less pressured. This is the simplest step in a way, though it’s definitely not easy. Here are some thoughts for how to adjust your expectations in a healthy way…
- Speak from the heart and be honest. Make sure that what you say doesn’t feel formulaic—and recognize that it’s OK (even preferable) to be vulnerable.
- Give people space to get used to new dynamics in your relationship, and be patient: they may not get pronouns and names right away in the beginning.
- Plan meetings in advance, and as closely together as possible in order to control the drift of gossip.
- Open yourself up to questions, remembering that you may be the only trans person the majority of your co-workers know.
- Be mentally prepared for the worst to happen (e.g. someone walking out of a meeting or dismissing you with a hurtful comment). Similarly, though, be prepared for people to be super supportive to your face—and not so supportive behind your back.
4. Be your own advocate in the adjustment period.
Once you’ve come out, sure the “hard” part is over. But the adjustment period will still be a bit unsettling, meaning that it’s essential to be your own advocate.
- If you feel anxiety in larger group settings such as going to lunch, ask a few co-workers to join you when going to the cafeteria. You may even consider a buddy-system for the first little while.
- If you pass people—in the hall, kitchen or other common spaces—send your email letter to these colleagues so they know.
- Keep your closer co-workers informed of major milestones in your transitions such as changing your legal name, surgery dates, hormonal treatments, etc. Otherwise, for example they may think something else is wrong when you are out of the office for a few weeks recovering from a procedure.
- If someone sends you a note or calls you in support, be grateful and make sure to connect with that person. Send back a thank you note or call to set up a one-on-one meeting to connect further, and expand your support network.
- Constantly sell the vision: you will be a happier more productive employee—then deliver the results.
5. Take your whole self to work—including in logistical contexts.
One of the most prominent and ongoing issues during a transition can be related to pronoun or name changes. In the context of work, it’s important to engage and prepare HR to support you in changing your name in things like the email and telephone system, ID cards, insurance profiles, general HR systems, pension plans. And try to have patience as your HR team tries to get up to speed with best practices – you may be blazing trails, and what policy they start with today they may recognize in short order is no longer applicable.
Also make sure to address more physical issues with HR such as bathroom needs (and understand if they are placing any restrictions of use - they often will relax these new rules as the culture acclimates). Communicate the time you will need for appointments related to transition (pre-op, consultations, electrolysis/laser hair removal) and surgical recovery. Ensure a plan for covering your workload during surgical leave, which should be in place well ahead of time.
These tips are by no means comprehensive but they are a good starting place for a challenge that may seem insurmountable. While I certainly didn’t share every little detail of my life and my transition with my co-workers, I did something courageous by making myself vulnerable, and I am still grateful for that choice.
Do you have ideas and feedback on how to come out at work? Let us know!