A safe space is an environment where people feel secure that they won’t be discriminated against, harassed, or otherwise harmed emotionally or physically. Ideally, every place should be a safe space for everyone. But unfortunately, for members of marginalized groups, including transgender individuals, it’s all too easy to be exposed to hurtful words and actions in certain public spaces.
One such public place is the workplace. In fact, today, about 90 percent of transgender people experience harassment or discrimination in the workplace. The workplace, whether an office or other environment, is not only where the majority of people spend the majority of their time but also where they learn, grow, and forge connections with coworkers. And studies have shown that unsafe working environments can have severe, negative effects on people’s well-being, leading to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Studies have also shown that unhealthy workplaces negatively affect employers, which suffer losses when employees are unable to perform under the duress of a hostile environment.
Fortunately, many employers are moving towards enshrining acceptance and inclusivity in their company policies. For example, A.T. Kearney, Aetna, Bain & Co., and Deloitte have begun offering healthcare coverage plans with transgender-inclusive benefits. But no matter where an employer falls with regards to transgender-inclusive policies, there are still things you can do to create safe spaces for your transgender coworkers.
To that end, here are several tips for shifting how you perceive and interact with transgender coworkers, thus helping to create a safer workplace.
1. Always use a person’s preferred pronouns.
The way a person introduces themselves—whether they use the pronouns she or he, or gender neutral pronouns like they or ze—should always be respected. Regardless of how someone presents themself, they alone get to decide how they are addressed. Using a person’s preferred gender pronouns is integral to making them feel respected.
For those who identify as the gender associated with our biological sex, it can be easy to assume that everybody’s identity is as apparent. But gender is highly individual, and when you assume someone’s gender based on what you perceive, you inadvertently bias yourself, making it harder to understand how the individual identifies. So, it’s important to be mindful of how you perceive your coworkers and not lead with assumptions base on clothing, hairstyles, and mannerisms. People tend to introduce themselves by the manner in which they identify themselves, so always go with that.
2. Avoid intrusive questions.
Gender is personal, and like a person’s sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and political leanings, it isn’t really any of your business. It’s natural to be curious, but it isn’t okay to ask intrusive or offensive questions. A good rule of thumb is: if you wouldn’t ask a question of a coworker you know to be cisgender, it’s probably not a question you should ask anybody.
3. Listen more than you speak.
So often, the transgender community is made to feel voiceless. If you genuinely want to create safe spaces for transgender coworkers, one of the most important things you can do is give them a voice. Vulgar or insensitive questions will never foster a dialogue, but telling somebody that you are here to listen will. It can start as simply as checking in with how someone is doing. Without pushing them to speak more than they are willing, you can start to build trust and learn from the experiences of one another. Allowing someone to tell their story without judgment or interruption—to teach you how you can be of better support—is one of the most impactful gestures we can make.
4. If you see something, say something.
An important aspect of being an ally is standing up for someone when they need you the most. If we see someone being discriminated against for their gender identity—or anything else—we need to have their back. This doesn’t necessarily mean confronting the aggressor, although there’s nothing wrong with respectfully reminding someone of the consequences of workplace harassment. However, notifying HR of any harassment you witness is an important step for effecting change in the workplace—and you can do this anonymously.