NOTICE | Andre Vlok: Confronting prejudice against trans colleagues

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Transphobic conduct in the workplace is as immoral as it is illegal, but also André Vlok points out, it can be effectively resolved by using conflict management tools.


There are several practical conflict resolution measures an employer or employee can take to rid their workplace of transphobic behavior or at least minimize it.

My own work in this area shows that this type of workplace conflict often stems more from ignorance of the issues than from actual malice or prejudice. A look at some of the actual cases of such conflicts can serve to highlight this critical first step and show the difference between bias and possible ignorance.

  • Transgender employees experience bias when applying for a job, in their promotion expectations, in the assignment of work and opportunities.
  • They face workplace bias and complaints, performance criticism and disciplinary action, which are disguised as other apparent workplace infractions.
  • Transgender employees face potentially unforeseen consequences and harms when implementing existing workplace policies that may not understand or be written with the correct requirements in mind, such as access to benefits and health services, calculation of sick leave, access to medical benefits by spouses, etc.
  • Transgender employees often complain of a lack of privacy and understanding regarding their private experiences, including those that have absolutely nothing to do with the workplace.
  • Transgender employees report a high incidence of harassment in the workplace, ranging from name calling, exclusion, taunting, threats, and even physical and sexual assault and harassment.
  • Experiencing a lack of workplace facilities such as changing rooms, washrooms, accommodations with respect to dress code and the right to change their name to their new chosen name.

It is clear that the lines between intentional harms and unintended consequences (because not taken into account) can sometimes blur, which could have legal implications, but remains a cold comfort for the victims.

Recourse for the employer

There are several pieces of legislation that employers can use to establish a framework in which transphobia is effectively addressed in their respective workplaces. Here the Employment Equity Act is of particular importance, along with the Labor Relations Act, the Basic Terms and Conditions of Employment Act and a few others of practical help.

A prudent employer will write their own internal policy dealing with these workplace issues involving transgender interests and possible conflicts. The absence of such a policy can be as detrimental as a poorly written policy.

READ | REVIEW: Cassandra Roxburgh – Navigating Transgender in the Workplace

The new Code of Practice for the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment at Work can also be a very effective tool in combating any transphobic behaviour. It requires the employer to create and implement their own workplace systems and processes to deal with workplace harassment, which in practice can effectively match the needs raised in our discussion here.

Such a workplace policy in general and the Code in particular require an initial training/coaching component and a measure of skills transfer to existing departments or designated employees.

Employers must also be vigilant in not only using such a policy or the Code as guidance, but in leaving a culture of transphobia in the workplace intact. Such policies, while technical and potentially complex on some level, should simply recognize that transgender people seek nothing more than to be treated with dignity and in the same way as any other employee.

Remedies for Transgender Employees

The aforementioned legislation and policies theoretically protect the transgender employee from prejudice and abuse in the workplace. To this is added of course a series of constitutional rights. In reality, these well-defined rights often do not translate into absolute protection for the transgender employee, with direct or indirect victimization, exclusion, career sabotage and a range of other outcomes reported by these employees after used these remedies.

While these remedies are certainly effective up to a point, they also tend to destroy the already strained working relationship, especially the more contentious external options.

READ | How do you treat a trans colleague? Hint: like any other colleague

Obviously, there may come a time when such options are the only answers left, but a person’s career in the workplace is still a high price to pay for principles, and there are other effective tools of conflict resolution that a transgender employee should consider and adopt as a matter of first instance.

Effectively implemented, these tools realistically transcend the impugned conduct and restore the working relationship without any “side” or interest being harmed. Several national examples of such workplace successes already exist, and work with the new Code anticipates further advancements in the workplace.

Here, the main philosophy should be that the working relationship should be restored. Whenever possible, this should not be based on breaking a rule as restoring a relationship. The transgender employee can effectively remedy this with practical remedies such as:

  • Ensure appropriate systems and processes in the workplace (see new Code) and insist on being part of the drafting and implementation of this Code or policies,
  • If necessary, educate employers and colleagues, in a constructive way, and try to integrate these educational efforts into the process itself,
  • Patiently and constructively point out cultural habits in the workplace that may run counter to new policies. Employers at the senior management level are often unaware of the toxic practices that still exist,
  • If there is any level of employee representation in the workplace (usually a union), sit down with them and constructively discuss their level of understanding of your rights and challenges, how they have intent to address issues that affect transgender people,
  • Remember that this is hard work, that patience and persuasion might be in your best long-term interest than a hostile campaign, especially at the start of your efforts, and that, as hurtful as may be some of your professional experiences, those relationships may need to be healed and nurtured rather than destroyed,
  • Insist that Qualified Mediation be introduced as one of the disciplinary processes in your workplace, as it reduces old-fashioned conflict-based hearings, reduces potential abuse of these systems by management, and provides a means more effective in resolving real conflicts in the workplace.

Remedies for other employees

Other employees who may wish to act as allies of transgender employees can be very effective in advocating for fair and inclusive internal processes or codes (including input from transgender employees in the design and implementation of these processes), speaking out strongly against toxic work culture practices that entrench or perpetuate such conflicts (primarily in the form of “jokes”, insults, physical behaviors and subtle operational practices involving promotion).

This doesn’t need to be active campaigning but can be very effective even at the level of commenting against such practices, support for transgender employees and causes, and normal behavior that simply acknowledges humanity and dignity of all employees.

Instances of transphobia in the workplace where management is unaware of these challenges, or where they can actively encourage such behavior, will sooner or later end in very negative outcomes for these employers.

In cases where such transphobia at work manifests itself in serious risks for all involved, but the employer wishes to remedy this situation, an initial phase using professional external assistance which then leads to a possible set of internal processes as we discussed above is recommended. Other than that, any significant transphobic conduct in the workplace is as unethical as it is illegal, and it can be dealt with effectively using the conflict tools already mentioned.

– Andre Vlok is a negotiator, conflict and labor dispute specialist and based in Port Elizabeth.

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