A reader writes:
I'm a trans-woman. (Ed. note: For readers who may not know what this means, this is a transgender person who was born biologically a man but is living as a woman.) Over the past couple of years, I transitioned at my job. One of the two groups I worked with took this in stride, and with some expected and reasonable hiccups, generally referred to me correctly. The other didn't, and very rarely used the correct pronoun on me, no matter how I asked (I even talked to HR). After more than a year of this, I couldn't take it anymore, so I gave notice, completed the documentation they asked for, and left.
Now I'm applying for a position that I'm really excited about with an apparently wonderful company. The technical phone interviews went really well, so they've asked me out for an in-person interview. Oh,
and they've asked for my references.
I've done some consulting work, and I'm comfortable asking one of my clients to be a reference. I can ask my better supervisor to be a reference, too. But that's only two people. Making matters worse, I've
been working full-time with the other group for most of this year, so the most recent (and most interesting) work I've done has been with them. And I know that no matter who I put down as a reference, the recruiter will probably find a way to talk to that supervisor---and that supervisor almost never used the right pronouns while I was standing right there, so I have little faith that he'll use the right ones on the phone.
On the plus side, this company has said that they won't contact references without asking me first, and that they generally don't do so until they're ready to make an offer. They also have a strong non-discrimination policy, and seem to be a socially progressive company overall. When the recruiter asks if she can call my references, should I come out to her and tell her what to expect? I'm not actually really opposed to being out, but after my last experience, it's really a decision I'd really like to be able to make
for myself, after I've developed relationships with my coworkers and better understand the company culture. Help! What should I do?
Aside from knowing clearly that your old boss is a jerk, this is beyond my expertise, so I consulted with Dr. Jillian Weiss, the expert on transgender issues in the workplace who helped us a few months ago with another transgender issue. Here's what she said:
Coming out to a prospective employer is a tricky thing. Advice, no matter how knowledge and well-meaning, is always risky, particularly when an outsider doesn't know all the details, and all courses may run ill.
On the one hand, coming out shows admirable forthrightness and demonstrates comfort with one's core identity. It also alleviates the surprise (or shock) and questions about honesty that could arise when the potential employer receives the news from a none-too-friendly former employer. On the other hand, it raises issues that are more in the personal sphere than in the business sphere, and it could make a hiring manager wonder whether personal matters are going to distract a new employee from getting the work done. And, of course, there are those who are prejudiced against transgender people, and will see this as a good reason not to move forward on the hire.
The longer you can wait before providing this information seems to me the better course. It may also make sense to have your lawyer write a short letter to that company's CFO or VP in charge of HR, warning of dire consequences should information of a personal and confidential nature be revealed, and to follow up with a phone call to ensure that the message was clearly received. (If you don't have a lawyer, find one who understands the business setting. Writing a letter shouldn't be too expensive.)
If that is not an option, however, given the choice between hearing it from my lips, and hearing it from the lips of the former manager who never used the right pronoun, I would prefer to be the one setting the context. But I would wait until it is really necessary, and hopefully, by that point, the prospective employer has gotten to know you well enough to judge you on your skills and not on your gender.
This makes a lot of sense to me. I'd also add that it's better to find out before taking the job if they're bigoted or hostile, although of course it's unfair that you should have to deal with that limitation. Anyone else want to weigh in?