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By Hassan Kanu
June 29 — Employees making the transition to their preferred gender deserve a productive and harassment-free work environment, for their good and their employers', according to human resources professionals at Intel Corp.
Although there are many issues that have to be dealt with, a bathroom plan is “ground zero” when employers are getting their policies in place, Keith Epstein, a legal investigator in Intel's human resources department, said. The company has managed to achieve what he called “potty parity.”
Amid all the clamor in some corners about gender and rest-room usage, the company has developed a simple approach for its workers. “At Intel, our restroom policy is, essentially, you get to use the restroom you want to,” Epstein said June 21.
“If you come to work presenting as a male, you're welcome to use the men's restroom,” and those presenting as women may use the women's room, he said. “We don't have anyone checking anyone's genitals before they use the bathroom,” Epstein said, before joking about what such a job description might look like.
He added that Intel has had no problems with the policy.
In general, Intel has made significant efforts in recent years to accommodate and support transgender employees, Eva Breslin, also a company legal investigator, said.
The company began providing insurance coverage for gender transition surgery to its employees in 2011. Epstein said the decision just made sense. “We think there's about four to six transitions a year, at about $100,000 to $250,000 each, which wasn't a huge cost,” he said.
Recently, and coinciding with Pride Week, it removed a $15,000 limit on cosmetic procedures for transitioning, including augmentation breast surgeries, tracheal shaves and voice therapy.
“Our benefits folks compare benchmarks against about 40-something other companies in high tech, and about half of them cover sexual reassignment surgery,” Epstein told Bloomberg BNA June 29. “Seventeen of them cover some form of what is perhaps inappropriately termed ‘cosmetic’ surgeries, so I think we’re among the market leaders in that space.”
Epstein said his point about such surgeries being inappropriately termed as “cosmetic” refers to the fact that most people who transition would likely think those surgeries are very central to what they’re doing. “Body hair can be an issue, having breasts created can be an issue,” he said, noting that he would not consider such surgeries to be “cosmetic”.
Looking past the most recent initiatives, the company has set in place a standardized process that provides for effective communications and minimizes workplace disruptions when an employee transitions.
“Although the number of transitioning employees is small, these cases touch a lot of people” in the workplace, Epstein said. “In truth, when one person transitions at Intel, all the people around them transition—it's an emotional and psychological process that everyone goes through.”
The company went though “quite a kerfuffle” about bathroom usage some years ago when an employee in California transitioned. “We tackled that problem and over the last 8 years we developed this program to support our employees who are transitioning,” Epstein said. “The goal is to continue the levels of productivity, and to support our employees to work as a team with respect for each other.”
Epstein also pointed out that having such a program can be an affirmative defense against certain kinds of legal claims employees might bring.
Breslin and Epstein gave an overview of the program and its components at the Society for Human Resource Management's 2016 annual conference.
Discussions about transgender workers often involve topics that are sensitive, uncomfortable or embarrassing, including bodily functions and physical sexual characteristics.
Epstein said Intel discovered about 51 different terms concerning gender identity. It's therefore important to define words and phrases, as well as pointing out that a term like “transvestite” is outdated and pejorative, he said.
The investigators noted that one of the most important ground rules is to accept that it's not problematic to feel uncomfortable or uninformed. “Feel free to ask questions” because it's important to overcome awkwardness and establish an environment that fosters productivity, trust and respect, Breslin said.
“What we really promote at Intel is a partnership between the employee and human resources,” she said. That's important “because we need to understand what the employee wants, what they need” in order to keep the business running and minimize disruptions, she said.
The next step is getting down to the details, Breslin said.
“Part of that is the timeline, meaning what date is the person going to show up transitioned, when will they walk in the door and present” differently than before.
Organizations and employers also need to establish a communication plan, Breslin said. This includes “really giving some thought to who needs to be told.” Employers should consider the management ladder, others within the employee's workgroup, and customers—both internal and external.
“Who all should be getting that information?” is the key question, Breslin said.
The other component of the planning phase is “back office system changes.” Breslin said organizations should think about changing the employee's name in their databases and e-mail accounts, updating the employee's benefits information, and even looking at changes to archived documents—such as old performance reviews—and badges.
“If someone is changing their gender, their appearance will be different, so they need to change their badge,” Breslin said. She added that Intel actually permits workers to change their account information and badges before a legal name change occurs.
“Transitions aren't chronological, its not like you start from A then go to B, things can go back and forth,” she said. “So for us, trying to provide support means, OK, let's go ahead and change the badge, the name, even though you're still working on legal paperwork.”
Intel also allows employees to present how they choose to customers, including using new names, whether legally official or not. The company has even allowed an employee “to switch back and forth,” where the person had transitioned at work, but hadn't in his or her personal life.
Likely the most important component after planning is setting a transition date, Breslin said.
“One thing we want to make sure of is we don't have big surprises,” she said. The company allows transitioning employees to institute the “communications plan” first, she said. “We feel that when people are surprised they say things, or respond in ways that may be unintentional or not thought through, so avoiding that is important,” she said.
Breslin told the story of an employee outside of Intel who said he was surprised by a co-worker who changed genders just weeks after starting a job. “If he'd had an opportunity to talk about it, or just get grounded on ‘how do I handle this' ” things would have played out better, Breslin said. “When things go wrong, it's really hard to go back and clean up that damage, so the more you can do up front to plan things out,” the better, she said.
The last component of Intel's program is also one of the most important, Breslin said.
Organizations should “check-in” to make sure the employee's expectations were met, and to discuss any lingering issues or concerns. Breslin added that a check-in with managers is also important.
As a final matter, and part of the follow-up, organizations should make sure the previously mentioned “back office system changes” are appropriate. This includes name changes in the HR system, any necessary changes to health benefits, and any modifications of the employee document archive.
“We've gone back and changed everything for someone who's been at Intel 19 years, so you have a consistent record going forward,” Epstein said. “It's a real project, but it's important, so we'll do it.”
“Having a communications and transition plan really thought out is a great way to start,” Epstein said. “The more you can put together ahead of time,” the easier the process is.
As for the transitioning employees, Epstein said Intel “doesn't require people to dress a certain way.”
The company has had co-workers who objected to a transition, including on religious grounds, he said. Although Intel encourages co-workers to voice their concerns, and tries to accommodate them, the company reminds employees that it has a code of conduct, internal values and policies, the investigator said.
The company has gone as far as demoting a manager who persisted in objecting to working with a transgender employee. “We remind our employees that we try to respect all different kinds of diversity,” Epstein said. “We're not asking anyone to change their personal beliefs, the only requirement is that we treat each other with dignity and respect.”
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