CPA INSIDER

When a colleague announces they’re transgender

As more people feel comfortable coming out publicly, workplaces, including accounting firms, may encounter questions about how to support employees.
By Sarah Ovaska-Few

Coming out as transgender at her current job was a terrifying experience for Rebecca DuPree, CPA.

But when she informed the human resources department and her supervisors at the Harris County Auditor's Office in Houston last year that she would be legally leaving behind the name John — the male name she was given at birth — and legally changing her gender marker to female and her name to Rebecca, she felt welcomed.

"All were very supportive," said DuPree, manager for continuous audit.

The transgender, or trans, community is in the public eye more than ever, in large part because of the high-profile careers of people such as Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono, as well as reality television star and former U.S. Olympian Caitlyn Jenner's 2015 announcement that she would live as a woman. Debate over legislating the use of public restrooms by transgender individuals has also highlighted policy issues.

As more people feel comfortable coming out publicly, workplaces, including accounting firms, are likely to encounter questions. Here's some information that may help.

Adjust policies

The legal landscape is far from settled when it comes to gender-identity rights, with several federal court cases pending.

But many workplaces have pushed forth with their own protections, something that PwC opted to do in recent years, for example. The firm contacted the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a national LGBTQ advocacy group headquartered in Washington, about how it could adopt policies that were open and welcoming to transgender individuals, said Jennifer Allyn, a diversity strategy leader at PwC.

HRC offers resources to companies about making workplaces trans-friendly. PwC adopted many of the suggestions, including adding gender identity as a protected group in its global code of conduct and covering gender reassignment treatments in firm health care plans. The firm also adopted inclusivity guidelines that stated staff could use the gendered bathroom of their choosing.

Treating your transgender colleagues the same as everyone else is a key part of offering support in the workplace, said Beck Bailey, deputy director of HRC's workplace equality program.

It's also important to stick to workplace norms when it comes to asking personal questions. If you have an acquaintance at work who is transgender, don't ask them if they've had gender assignment surgeries or are taking hormones.

"Treat us as you would treat any other colleague," DuPree said.

Learning more

Though you may be curious about what being transgender entails, don't expect your newly transitioned colleague to give a class on Transgender 101, Bailey said. Instead, he recommended seeking out information at local LGBTQ centers or at groups like HRC or PFLAG.

"Don't necessarily put the burden of all that education on your friend and colleague," Bailey said.

Workplaces can also step up and offer their own informational sessions, something that PwC did when a staff member in one of its offices transitioned from female to male.

The firm brought in an expert to talk with the team the individual worked with, and hosted a meeting where people could ask questions without fear of offending or alienating the trans colleague.

Pronoun preference

Pronoun preference is one major way people can indicate their gender preference. In some environments, people are taking the step of introducing themselves by stating their pronoun preference (he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs for an individual).

Some corporate environments are following suit, with people including their preferred pronouns on email signature lines or business cards, Bailey said. When you are in doubt, he recommended, politely ask what pronouns a person wants to use.

Showing support

Finally, it's important to simply acknowledge when a person comes out as transgender, Bailey said.

It can be as simple as saying "'I support you but I am not always sure exactly how to be supportive. Can you tell me how I can help?'," he said.

DuPree said she felt supported when one of her bosses stopped by DuPree's office prior to her transition and told her she accepted and supported her completely. The women in her office also took her out to lunch when she returned to work after legally changing her name, a gesture that left DuPree feeling accepted.

DuPree realizes her announcement was a big change for her colleagues. For the most part, she said, things have gone smoothly. She uses the women's room without issues, and most of her officemates quickly adjusted to the change.

"I'm working with people that probably never knew a transgender person previously," she said. "I hope I'm turning around some of the fears."

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director – content development, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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