Countering Unintentional Isolation in the Workplace

For managers and HR professionals, gearing-up mentally to undertake the infrequent process of supporting an employee who announces that they are transitioning their gender expression in the workplace can be unsettling and even unnerving.  “Getting it right” as supporters of the trans person may always be a worry in the back of our minds.  Even companies with positive gender transition policies and guidelines cannot account for the multitude of subtle differences in a particular person’s circumstances, needs, and wishes, and so there is always some level of apprehension.

Communication, openness, and honesty go together with asking, listening, and empathizing.  Coming out as transgender to one’s office inhabitants, colleagues, customers, and company leaders is HARD.

However, this article is not really about all that. Since executing a transition plan often generates anxieties for everyone involved, there is a big natural sigh when the plan approaches its final phase.  Hopefully, the outcome is “it went okay,” so we should all feel good now…

When you (managers and HR professionals) get to this point, make a note on your calendar to soon revisit what is all too often now looming on the horizon.  A period of unintentional isolation for the *new* person.

Before focusing on what unintentional isolation means from a trans person’s point of view, let’s briefly contrast it with intentional isolation.  The intentional variety of employee isolation is a systematic process often used to “drive out” a trans employee from a company that no longer wants them around.  Multiple reasons for this behavior may include things like serious anti-transgender bias from company owners or managers, threats or pressure from the trans person’s co-workers, or threats from customers about taking their business elsewhere.

Effective isolation tactics – some of which may even be illegal depending on the state of legislation – include demoting; cutting wages, salaries, or benefits; transferring to physically isolated locations; or rescheduling for night shifts.  These tactics have the effect of making the person feel marginalized, unwanted, worthless, and even hated.  All too often, these tactics work, and they result in a trans person just giving up and leaving.

Unintentional isolation, however, can be much more subtle and more difficult to spot.  After the dust begins to settle from the coming out process at work, a trans person typically becomes acutely aware of how others may have started changing their behavior.  All co-workers may go through some form of shock at the outset of the person’s coming out process, but afterward, real changes in a co-worker’s patterns will not go unnoticed.

Before coming out, most trans people know they will be risking rejection by certain family members, loss of various short- and long-time friends and colleagues, and even pleasantries with once-friendly neighbors.  There is a certain amount of emotional preparation that happens to plan for that reality.

Once the transition plan is in motion, though, any relationship-based situation can explode all at once or gradually begin to erode.  Explosions can lead to getting fired, getting evicted, or worse, and even while terrible, explosions can lead to clean breaks that trigger the life-rebuilding process right away.  However, other relationship situations that do not explode can still begin to erode and can lead to painful periods of unintentional isolation.

Unintentional isolation can result from conscious thoughts and actions by co-workers, but it can also result from unconscious or semi-conscious feelings – feelings that the trans person’s *new* identity is just too much to handle.  In other words, you just cannot embrace them the way that you used to do.  For many people, feeling this way becomes a source of anxiety in their own lives – they do not want to feel this way about their *old* friend, but they do, and they do not really know what to do about it.

Unintentional isolation is noticeable when the trans person stops getting asked to go out with their previous lunch crowd, stops getting notices about co-ed softball practices and games, stops being asked to participate in the monthly bake sale, or stops getting invited to take a break and walk around the park.   Less noticeable, though, is still being accepted by the lunch crowd in general, but observing that your peers do not want to go to most of the usual places anymore (where they know too many other people to be seen with you.)  And to make these matters worse, newly-out trans people tend to be safe and not risk outright rejection by trying to re-initiate these activities themselves.

For you managers and HR professionals, the point of this article is to show what may be looming after any workplace gender transition, regardless of its apparent level of success.  You cannot really do much about what happens between co-workers, but if a trans person experiences too much isolation, even if it is mostly unintentional, they may still eventually give up and leave.

What else can you do?  Here are three potential counter-isolation strategies:

  1. Ask them about opportunities for higher personal visibility, including:
  • Moving into a more open office environment or working in a high-traffic area
  • Assigning them to the busiest shift schedule and/or the busiest break-time schedule
  • Asking them to help host the office’s holiday pot-luck festivities

Note: Some trans individuals want to minimize their exposure to potentially negative situations, and they may want to minimize personal contact with others.  Make sure you know how they feel about levels of personal visibility.

  1. Suggest opportunities for higher professional visibility, including:
  • Encouraging them to write an article or a whitepaper for publication
  • Challenging them to create an educational class/workshop/curriculum (and teach it)
  • Asking them to host a company summit for internal or external peers
  • Sponsoring them for additional professional licenses, certifications, or distinguishment
  1. Spend some extra time with them, and simply encourage them!
  • Letting them know you care through your availability and actions, not just by your words
  • Finding something new that you two have in common, even if just to talk about it once
  • Reassuring them that when they need to talk about something, you will make time to listen

Becoming more visible gives a trans person a greater sense of inclusion (provided that negative bias is first removed from the workplace).  The more time that a trans person spends interacting with others in a positive way, the more at ease everyone will become.

In contrast, when isolation sets in, a trans person can become increasingly guarded and withdrawn, and that situation creates a risk for them – the risk of missing new opportunities for new relationships.

After my workplace transition, I did see many of my job-centric relationships change for the worse. But to my surprise, I found that other individuals began to engage me – the *new* me – when they may have never done so with the *old* me.  For example, finding out that another co-worker has the same leopard-print sweater that I was wearing triggered a long chat about our shopping habits.  Her concluding comment to me was something like “Cool, I never knew we had all this in common.”  We go shopping together now on occasion.

It is worth repeating: “The more time that a trans person spends interacting with others in a positive way, the more at ease everyone will become.”  Also, mark your calendars with a big “TDOV” on the next Transgender Day of Visibility and make that day live up to its purpose.

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