In my 20 years of running an agency, I’ve been lucky enough to always have advisors and coaches that help me navigate business matters. I’ve had coaches with backgrounds in finance, sales, operations and in building, running and selling successful marketing agencies. But this year, was the first time I had a matter to deal with where I could find no guidance.
One of my employees told me that she is transgender and is planning to start her outward transition to being a woman. While I know that it took a lot of courage to tell me, the conversation was started because she was dealing with some family issues and needed some time off and not because she was ready to let the rest of the team know or begin to transition fully at work.
Once her personal issue was resolved, the conversations turned to timing and details and helping her make this transition at work. One team member was already aware, but no one else. Since she was not yet ready to make this transition public, we had some time to plan.
Over the next few weeks, we talked several times and she decided when and how she’d like to speak to the team. I had questions about practical matters and also about how she would like information to be shared. I felt that it was best to let her handle this in the way that she was most comfortable. She decided that she would compose a letter and have her friend read it aloud to the team. She would not be present when the letter was read as she preferred to be off the day of the meeting. We’re a group of 10, so it wasn’t going to be difficult to do this and allow time for individual questions, which her friend and I were prepared to answer based on previous conversations.
I wasn’t surprised that the reaction from the team was very supportive. There were very few questions that hadn’t been answered in the letter. She addressed questions about what transgender means, proper use of pronouns and her name change. She invited the team to feel free to ask her questions when she returned. Her friend invited any questions after she read the letter and there really weren't any. One team member was concerned for her safety traveling on public transportation to work. It’s a sad reality that this is a concern, but I was touched that he was thinking about her safety. Mostly, her team mates wanted to be sure that she was as comfortable as possible making this transition.
She decided that upon her return, she would be using her new name, Sara*, and while her outward transition may take awhile, for all intents and purposes, she was a woman and we would treat her as such. I was determined to greet her on return with her new name solidly in place in things like email address, computer login, software logins, voice mail messages etc. I didn’t want her to feel like she was stuck in two gender roles anymore. By the time Sara came out to me, she was dressing as a man only when coming to work. I can't imagine how difficult living dual roles must be. I felt that making sure Sara didn't have to live as Thomas* AND Sara at work was a small thing I could do to be supportive.
Upon Sara's return, we didn’t have any major setbacks. There were a few glitches around software and login email addresses. Some applications don’t allow you to change the email address you log in with, so new accounts needed to be created and data transferred. With the help of our IT vendor, we were able to get most of the technical issues out of the way before Sara's return.
Bathroom usage wasn’t an issue since we don’t have separate bathrooms for men and women, although I would not have anticipated this being a problem anyway. We share the bathrooms with only a few other tenants.
The team was curious to see when Sara returned whether she would be dressing differently, but other than that, it was business as usual.
But now, I had to figure out how best to talk to clients. With a name change, came a change in email address. Team members would be referring to Sara, not Thomas. I didn’t want clients to wonder who Sara is or think that she was a new hire. It’s always difficult to move team members between client accounts as it causes a bit of disruption and additional time to get new people up to speed and develop rapport. So, I wanted to be clear with clients that this was not the case.
Since I had no prior experience to fall back on the first thing I did was run to Google. I found information from an HR and legal perspective, but nothing that was going to help me figure out how to talk to clients. So, after giving this some thought, and running a few scenarios past my current business coach, I decided that I would put together an email that was positive and supportive and talked about how excited my team and I are for Sara and to limit any other kind of explanations or information. It was short and simple and read like this:
I’m writing you about a matter that is essentially personal to Thomas here at Hudson Fusion but, as you communicate with him directly at times, I wanted to make sure we avoid confusion. Thomas has recently shared with us that she is a transgender person. While this won’t impact you or the work she does for you, it does mean that she has a new name, and with that change comes a new email address.
Her new email address is, [NEW EMAIL ADDRESS] so if you see emails from Sara, just know that it is the same person you’ve been communicating with and working with and not a new team member.
Thank you for understanding and for helping me be supportive of Sara and my team. As always, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call or email me.
I have to be honest, it was hard to click “send.” I was worried that this was the right message and I wasn’t 100% sure of the response I would get. I knew that Sara was comfortable with the email as we had discussed it.
The email went out to approximately 15 people…basically to anyone that had direct contact with Sara when she went by the name Thomas. I thought about what would happen if I received any negative responses. I didn’t think that would happen. I felt my clients would be accepting and respectful. But, you never know as we never spoke about topics like this before. I decided that if anyone had a problem with this, then so be it. I wasn’t going to accommodate bigotry anyway. I was prepared for any outcome.
The responses I got were not only 100% positive but extremely supportive. Most were along of lines of these:
“Thank you for this information and we will be as supportive of Sara as you are”.
“Thanks Cindy for letting us know and will share with the team so they have the updated email going forward. Excited for Sara as she starts this new journey!”
I even got an email from our IT vendor after explaining to him why we were changing email addresses on existing accounts.
“It was great working with you today and I'm glad to see the team supporting a transgender person!”
When Sara came back to work, it was business as usual and there was absolutely no change in the "day to day" for anyone other than Sara, who could now come to work and interact with her team feeling more relaxed and comfortable and being herself with the people she spends so much of her life with. We still mix up pronouns every now and then, but I think the approach with clients was the right one. I gave them just enough information to make sure there was no confusion and left it at that.
I know that other businesses may not have such an easy time of it. I feel lucky. What I’ve learned, and can share from my experience is this:
- Only tell people the information they need to know. If I had hired someone who was fully transitioned, I would not feel that any communication about it with clients was warranted. After all, the fact that Sara is a transgender person wouldn't have any impact on the work she does with and for clients. But since this transition happened after a relationship with clients was in place, a simple and practical explanation was all that was needed.
- We have tried over the years to work only with clients who we can develop an honest relationship with. We work with clients who respect us, and that we respect. This has meant severing client relationships in the past when they weren’t a good fit…and that’s always a hard decision to make. At this point in time, I can say that all of my clients rock!
- I’ve learned the hard way to hire employees that I know will fit the culture of the agency. I hire people who are team players and love a culture of collaboration and mutual respect. Because my team all work closely together and respect each other, I had no concerns over Sara's transition.
The reason I’m writing this post is that I hope it helps some others make the transition for a transgender person a bit easier at work...for themselves, for their team and for their clients. I know that someone else’s experience may be far different than mine, but if I can add just a bit of thoughtful information, I’m thankful.
*Note: I haven't used my employee's real name in this post. Not because she objected to it or that the fictitious name is used to imply any level of secrecy or embarrassment, but only to preserve some privacy. I chose the name Sara because the journey starts with a new beginning. It reminds me of a tradition that when a person converts to Judaism, they adopt the name of their spiritual parents, Abraham or Sara.