To Support Transgender Employees, Make Allyship a Management Skill

 hands holding a a heart-shaped rainbow flag

Belonging DEIB Employee Well-being

LinkedIn career expert and senior director Andrew McCaskill shares tips on how allies can help support transgender colleagues.

What can companies and individual employees do to make the workplace better for transgender employees?

Employees who want to be allies in the workplace must be ready to embrace their discomfort, says Andrew McCaskill, senior director and career expert at LinkedIn.

“Cisgender folks who have any modicum of power have to make trans inclusion and belonging personal to them,” he says.

“They have to lean into the fact that it will require extra effort to remember the pronouns, to remember the correct name. It will require extra effort and it is going to be extra work, and they have to embrace that without resentment and without grudge.”

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It starts with acknowledging that the experience of transgender employees is different. And you might not know just how different that experience is, McCaskill warns, “especially at a time when only 35% of LGBTQ+ professionals feel safe bringing their full selves to work.”

On the individual level, allyship for transgender colleagues might include:

  1. Respectful communication and using the correct pronouns
  2. Avoiding making assumptions about transgender people's experiences
  3. Refraining from invasive inquiries about personal experiences or specifics around transitioning

Just sharing your pronouns, even if gender identity isn’t a part of your personal journey, can be an important signal to transgender colleagues about your willingness to engage.

“Sharing my pronouns, doing that actively and proactively, says that, ‘Hey, I'm a person who understands that everyone's gender journey may be different,’” McCaskill says. “Sometimes that's all we need is to see that other people are being thoughtful about it.”

On the company level, communicating proactively about inclusive policies can help transgender employees feel more comfortable sharing their full selves with the organization.

When companies share authentic stories about their efforts to be welcoming to all employees, they can send a powerful signal amid a crescendo of news about legislation aimed at restricting LGBTQ+ and transgender people.

“I don't believe in having queer mascots,” McCaskill says, “but I do think how a company tells the story of who they are and how they will treat people is really important — particularly in the current environment.”

Efforts are more likely to feel inauthentic when companies only highlight their inclusive policies during Pride month, or on a specific holiday honoring LGBTQ+ people.

“If companies engage at all, it has to be a celebration of everything you've done all the other 11 months, or all the other 364 days,” McCaskill says. “Pride is not about rainbow balloons and feather boas and floats. Pride is always a protest.”

Making room for listening

If fewer than a third of transgender or gender nonconforming employees are “out” at work, how can companies ensure they hear about the needs of this often invisible community?

“Companies need have to have an air game and a ground game,” McCaskill says, borrowing a metaphor from American football. “In the air game, you get external inputs — have external consultants come into the organization tell you things that you need to know.”

Companies get this kind of advice on all kinds of functions, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts are no different, McCaskill says.

“Get some of those external inputs to help people understand some of the things that your employees might not feel comfortable saying yet, because most companies are on a journey.”

The ground game is your internal engagement strategy, including employee resource groups and employee surveys. “Employee resource groups are an incredible way to tap into and get your finger on the pulse of what employee needs are,” McCaskill says.

When surveying, make sure employees have way to share anonymous feedback.

“You may only have a handful of trans employees, and of that handful of trans employees, only some of them may feel comfortable being verbalizing what some of those things are,” McCaskill says.

Only when employees feel safe to participate will you start to get meaningful feedback.

Turning values into action

How can companies turn core values like inclusion into an action plan that creates results? McCaskill offers a few tips:

1. Make allyship a management skill.

“Most of us don't quit companies or quit jobs — we quit managers and we quit situations,” McCaskill says. Companies that are serious about inclusion should make allyship a part of the learning programming offered to all employees, and especially leaders. “Build it in as a skill.”

Great workplaces should focus on helping managers build the resilience needed to change their mindset and behaviors.

“You can get this wrong and it doesn't make you a bad person, but getting it wrong and not course correcting makes you bad leaders and bad managers,” McCaskill says.

Great leaders are the ones who make the extra effort to improve, and great workplaces are the companies that support leaders on that growth journey.

“You can get it wrong and you can rebound,” McCaskill says. “You can get it right the next time, and the next time, and the next time.”

2. Make sure transgender and LGBTQ+ employees are in the room when decisions get made.

“Get real inputs — don't just say, ‘Oh, this will be great for the trans people,’” McCaskill says.

Every other business decision gets made with data and solid inputs, he explains. Be sure to also make these decisions with data and by listening to what transgender employees say they need to thrive. 

3. Make a broader commitment to inclusion.

No matter where your company is on its DEIB journey, efforts to be more inclusive are likely to have a positive impact for all employees.

“Some of the same things that people feel about inclusion and belonging in the queer community are quite similar to some of the things that people feel about inclusion and belonging from a racial ethnic standpoint,” McCaskill says. Efforts to be more inclusive for another group will likely also benefit LGBTQ+ employees and vice versa.

“The inclusion tide raises all boats inside the organization.”

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Ted Kitterman