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Friday, September 17, 2010

I'm afraid my old boss is going to out me as transgender

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?


Jamie said...

I see the logic behind bringing it up first, to control the way the message is presented.

But if I were the hiring manager the fact that you brought it up so early in the process might be a red flag for me as I wouldn't be hiring for any job where your genitals (past or present) would be relevant. If I heard about it from a reference and then you clarified by telling me that would be no big deal. However if you brought it up ahead of time I would wonder if this was going to be an issue.

I have a bias about anyone wearing personal causes or issues on their sleeves at work - this has nothing to do with being transgendered.

I would equate it to someone giving me a heads up in their interview that they were gay - I'd wonder what job they thought they were applying for where their sexuality would be relevant.

People's biological issues or sexual, political, or religious views are their own business - I just prefer not to hear anyone on a soap box about anything at work - so I would be as matter of fact as possible.

Ask a Manager said...

I can see saying at the point where you know a reference check is about to happen, "I feel like I should mention solely this to ward off any confusion during your reference checking. I'm transgender. I transitioned while I was working for that company, and my old boss is likely to refer to me as 'he' rather than 'she.' I mention this so that you're not confused if that happens."

Because otherwise, if the person doesn't know in advance and is on the reference call, and the old boss keeps using the wrong pronoun -- that might be really confusing. I could see the reference checker wondering if they were talking about the right person. And they might not give the candidate the chance to clarify later.

Sharon K. said...

Oh come on. This subject is about as stupid as it can get.

TG's make up .00000003% of the population. That makes the subject totally irrelevant.

Why even go there?

Anonymous said...

Shannon, obviously it is relevant to the people it concerns, like the OP and her workplaces. It also provides the blog readers with sound advice should any of us ever be involved in a similar situation (on any side) in the future.

Anonymous said...

*Sharon, rather. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Might it be possible to contact the old boss, explain to him that you will be using him as a reference (possibly adding what a great fit the job/company is for you and how excited you are), and tell him how you would like him to refer to you, and why? I understand that he didn't show sensitivity when you were working for him, but this doesn't necessarily mean that he will try to complicate your job search.

Ask a Manager said...

Sharon, I frequently print questions that are only relevant to a small number of people. That doesn't mean that other people don't find them interesting. (And frankly, if I were limited to questions with a wide reach of applicability, I'd get bored quickly and I suspect readers would too.)

Why aren't you complaining when I print questions like this one or this one or this one, all of which also only apply to a small number of people?

And frankly, this question gets into the heart of what this blog is often about: safety and security and dignity in your career.

If you don't like it, please just don't read it.

Mike said...

@Sharron -

There are many reasons one might have issues with a former boss that would likely to be contacted by a prospective employer.

What if you were a whistle blower at your workplace and were forced out? What if you were abused or assaulted at work?

I hear again and again that if you don't like your work environment for reasons that are beyond your control and are clearly unfair that you should leave and find a new job. These people forget that in these highly competitive times an old boss can present fake red flags or make you look bad enough that you don't get rehired.

CJ said...

Brava, AAM!

As I read the letter, I was thinking, "Have your HR department serve as your reference. They can confirm your basic employment information, and someone else who worked closely with you can speak to your daily activities and job performance."

Sharon K., I'm a bit taken aback that you feel so strongly. I would like you to read this article from the Human Rights Campaign regarding transgendered employees:

If you are an HR professional, you will run into issues that push your buttons. Many times it can feel like marginal populations get disproportionate attention, but your dismissive tone and unrealistic mathematical claims only serve to make you look ridiculous.

Ask a Manager said...

CJ, thanks for clearing up the numerical thing! (For those who haven't clicked through, the article CJ linked to discusses estimates of size the transgender population.)

You know, when I was writing this post, I thought, "Maybe I should put a disclaimer here warning people against leaving bigoted comments." And then I thought, "No, I should give people the benefit of the doubt, and besides, I don't want to have to mar the letter-writer's perfectly reasonable question with that kind of thing." It sucks that I was wrong.

CJ said...

AAM, it happens. The problem with the internet is simply that one comment leads to another, and then you have a flamewar.

Although I don't work with any transgendered people (that I know of), it is an important issue to me. I'm in Human Resources for the humans. Or, to turn Sharon's comment on its head: "TGs are people. That makes the subject totally relevant."

Anonymous said...

My short answer is that - I don't think advising the hiring manager is necessary because I don't think it will become an issue.

I feel that Jamie is correct in that addressing it up front may do more harm than good.

Even if your old boss does use the wrong pronoun when speaking to the hiring manager, the manager will surely address it if it occurs often enough. If he uses the wrong pronoun only once, for example, it may be overlooked as a mistake.

If it happens more than once, the manager will surely say, "I'm sorry, we are discussing So-And-SO, correct?" Your boss's answer to this should be straightforward and any tones or attitudes he conveys will only reflect upon himself.

Anonymous said...

Seems like the some of the respondents were determined to beat Sharon with the PC hammer that they forgot to take a long deep breath before responding.

If the issue is about a reference, what's the big deal? Talk with HR and see if they can get someone higher up to step forward, or use HR, but that's of limited help.

As for using a lawyer? Advise not doing that. The corporate wagons circle fast and it only causes more trouble.

To force someone (former supervisor) to do what is against their nature is a problem.

Raising an issue in reference to a transgenders rights, well keep in mind non-transgenders also have rights. You can't force acceptance, you only regulate it.

Out of curiosity, how many of you HR people have actually dealt with a TG issue in the workplace?

As for the statistics, no one really knows what the number is, and I suspect the info provided by any interest groups should be taken with a grain of salt.

So if Sharon K. has issues with transgendered people, so be it. She's only human. As I said earlier you can't force acceptance on people.

Biases um... He who is without sin, cast the first stone.

Jamie said...

Mike is right - you can take the advice and extrapolate to any potentially personal or awkward situation in the hiring process.

Or the alternative would be AAM only blogs about typos in cover letters (a universal occurrence) and I'm thinking that would be a far less interesting read.

On the subject of this topic I think it's helpful in another way. I personally wouldn't have an problem hiring a transgendered person, but it's never come up. Seeing stuff like this addressed by reasonable professionals has the collateral benefit of increasing sensitivity and we can address our own biases when it comes to people who may be radically different than ourselves.

CJ said...

@Anonymous at 2:34, I did take a deep breath (several) before responding. And you are correct, the steps she should take are similar to many other situations where a former supervisor will not be able to provide a reference.

However, I also have problems with some of your statements.

"... keep in mind non-transgenders also have rights. You can't force acceptance, you only regulate it."

Actually, my employer's policy is that we may not discriminate on the basis of all the usual legal stuff (race, ethnicity, age, etc.). In addition, my organization extra steps: "[T]his policy also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression."

If there is a similar policy in place at the OP's old workplace, then the old supervisor can feel how he wants to feel, but his actions are what is wrong.

If I were the HR rep for that organization, I wouldn't tell him that his personal feelings are not valid, but I would tell him that he is not allowed to use the wrong pronouns or continually refer to the OP as male in his language.

fposte said...

If we're just answering the question rather than throwing a stone, can we still sin? Because I plan to still sin.

Sharon, the treatment of trans employees is sufficiently an issue in my field that there is more than one prominent lawsuit regarding the issue, so it's definitely relevant if only for pragmatic reasons. But it's also relevant because it's a particularly notable and clear example of an applicant's desire to control her own message, an important concept for many applicants.

See? No rocks. Which is good, because I have weekend plans...

Ask a Manager said...

Anonymous 2:34 - I didn't see anyone getting particularly PC. People reacted to Sharon the way they did because her comment was obviously made with hostility. I for one would have responded much differently if she'd worded things differently. But she came to the conversation with meanness, and I'm glad that people call out meanness for what it is.

I have no idea how accurate those statistics are, and I also don't think it matters a whit. You could tell me there were only three transgender people in the country and it would still be worth talking about these issues. The numbers are irrelevant, and only got raised because of Sharon's odd assertion about them.

Last, you wrote, "So if Sharon K. has issues with transgendered people, so be it... you can't force acceptance on people." No, you can't force it. But you also don't have to ignore meanness when it's expressed. (And I'd argue it's better to confront it.)

I agree with you that over-the-top PC-ness is annoying. But I don't see that here at all, and kneejerk labeling of something as "PC" just because it's anti-hate and pro-tolerance is also frustrating.

Ask a Manager said...

In fairness, conservative does not automatically equal intolerant. And I've heard people who are politically liberal make intolerant/hateful remarks about people who are wired differently than them, whether it's gender, sexuality, or whatever.

On a soapbox today, apparently...


clobbered said...

Okay so to the actual question, I would say don't bring it up until after the interview, like any other "issue" (like, "I have a scheduled vacation and won't be able to start for two months") that may affect the *logistics* of your hiring but not your ability to do the job.

I assume the OP can "pass" as she believes that the only issue is gender misidentification in her references. In which case, totally agree with AaM - just say "if any of my referees refer to me as "he" it is because...."

I am not saying it's the same thing, but I work in a male-dominated industry and have an atypical name that is not always understood to be female. I have been in the position where people assume I am male till the moment I walk in the room - in which case, problem solved. If the OP doesn't completely pass yet, that will sort it out without the need to address it head on.

HOWEVER AND MORE TO THE POINT, I would personally worry about asking for a reference from somebody who can't even be bothered to make an effort to address me correctly. What other biases will show through? If you can bypass this person, do.

I wish the OP the best of luck, I understand transitioning in the workplace can be very hard and I hope they get their wonderful job and a clean slate.

For those who wish to educate themselves, Juliet Jacques has been chronicling her transition for the Guardian newspaper, you can read her articles there including one that addresses workplace transition:

Charles said...

Wow, some issues just bring out the nut jobs, don't they?

I, for one, think that this question applies to EVERYONE whose references may not be the best. So, while this question does not apply directly to me - I can still use the info. Only a truly ignorant person would think that I'm not "such and such so that info doesn't apply to me". Obviously some folks didn't learn to think while in school.

Also, Thanks! AAM for your rebuttal to the bigoted statement that conservatives are intolerant.

Personally, as one who is politically conservative (Republican and Tea party supporter here!) and socially open-minded I have found that such ignorant, blanket statments come from people of all races, religions, economic backgrounds, and yes, political leanings - both left and right.

Further, as a gay man I have found conservatives to be more tolerant of my being gay than liberals are of my being politically conservative. I have never had a conservative call me any names; Yet, I have had many self-called liberals (you know those that call themselves "open-minded") call me Nazi, fascist, self-loathing, etc because I don't have their same political beliefs. Go figure.

Okay, I'm getting off my soap box too. (sorry for that)

After that long rant, here's my two cents. I agree with Jamie in that I understand the desire to control the message; But with two already good references any wrong words from the former supervisor will be more a reflection of him rather than a reflection on the OP.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't OP explain the use of a different name in the same way a woman explains the use of her maiden name with past references?

I've never been married, so I don't actually know how its done (actually that's a question for AAM...) but I assume when I provide my references, which are printed on a sheet of paper with 'letterhead' that matches my resume and cover letter, I would just note with an asterisk, "I was known then as Anonymous Jones" or something to that effect.

I think it would clarify any confusion without forcing the employer to handle the hot potato of transgender issues.

While I agree throwing it out there during an interview is too forthright, waiting until after references are checked is risky too, since its rare for an employer to followup with an applicant to clarify comments a reference made.

Anonymous said...

OP here.

So, based on AAM and Dr. Weiss' advice, I decided to provide my references without comment. I did find another supervisor who I worked with in a smaller but recent project to provide the third reference.

I just got back from an in-person interview, and I think it went really well! I would even classify it as fun.

Now, I'm waiting. I'm probably not going to say anything to the recruiter. But just in case, I'm going to have a friend who works in HR do a reference check to see what comes up. If it's sufficiently bad, I might give them a heads up.

To clarify: I'm not listing the boss who uses incorrect pronouns as a reference. My concern is mostly that the reference checker will find a way to talk to him anyway.

@clobbered — As you surmised, I pass well, so in-person misreading isn't an issue.

@Anonymous on 9/19 — I haven't really changed my name, since it was pretty androgynous to start with. I'm going by a slightly different form of it, mostly to inhibit Googling, but it's nothing that can't be dismissed as, “oh, this is what she goes by.” I've listed my legal name on some paperwork that required it, and it hasn't been an issue.

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting aside....I was the OP a while back on another question about TG's in the workplace (the one about how to react to intolerant coworkers who protested when a TG used the women's restroom.) Many commenters accused me of "trolling", or making up a fake question. How come that didn't happen here? No one questioned this OP's sincerity. What's the secret for getting LGBT street cred? Why was I not believed?

Ask a Manager said...

I think it's because your question could have been interpreted as having an anti-trangender agenda. I'm not saying that you did, but it could be read that way.

Anonymous said...

But I was asking how to deal with the bigoted co-workers and keep _them_ under control! I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

(OP here.)

Anonymous, I know that later in that thread you said you were primarily concerned with helping the woman at your work, but that really wasn't how your initial question came across.

I mean, just to point out the most obvious part, you consistently referred to the woman in your office as if she were a man, implicitly allying yourself with the harassers. Had you instead written something like, “There's a woman in my office who's being harassed because some people think she's trans. What can I do about it?”, your intentions would have been far more clear.

But then, the answer would have been more clear, too. “One of my coworkers is being sexually harassed, and I don't think she's comfortable standing up for herself. What do I do?” If the harassers won't stop when chided, you go to HR.

The way you asked the question instead carries a rather nasty implication: Say she is trans, but her paperwork isn't in order. Or say it turns out that there isn't a hard legal definition of gender. What then? Is the harassment okay? Should HR intervene… on the side of the harassers, telling Charlene she has to use the men's room and stop wearing dresses?

As you wrote it, the question seems to imply that treating this woman with respect is contingent on her ability to meet some external criteria, which is simply not okay, regardless of what is or isn't in her medical history.

Ask a Manager said...

Well said! That was the concept I wanted and somehow couldn't find. Thank you.