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IMAGINE HAVING AN EMPLOYEE FOR 10 OR 15 YEARS — OR EVEN TWO TO THREE YEARS — WHO SUDDENLY INFORMS YOU THAT HE OR SHE IS A TRANSGENDER?
What do you do? How do you handle it?
Most importantly, what is legal under California employment law?
Just ask Carolyn Weiss, a specialist in transgender employment and law who is CEO of Transgender Business Services in Los Angeles, one of only a small handful of companies in the U.S. that focuses on this topic.
Ever since Bruce Jenner transitioned to Caitlyn Jenner, the issue of transgender has been wide open and red hot, particularly in California and now in the business world around the country.
“There is a big and growing market for these services now,” says Weiss, who transitioned seven years ago at the age of 55 after working as a Senior Supervisor for the City of Los Angeles for 32 years. “Outside of transgender-owned businesses, which are rare, business people are aware now that anybody in their employ could be transgender and are just waiting for the right time to come out. Employers just don’t know who could be transgender – it could be anyone.”
Businesses need to know the law applying to transgender workers and what they can and can’t do legally in these instances. Weiss is uniquely qualified to provide multiple levels of training, mentorship and information on this topic.
So what are the laws pertaining to the workplace and transgender people? First and foremost, it is illegal to discriminate against people in this protected group. The California law, enacted in 2004, forbids an employer from denying employment to someone on the basis of being transgender; it also prevents an employer from firing, harassing or inappropriately disciplining an employee for being transgender. California law also forbids discrimination in public accommodations. So retailers need to be aware as well.
“If handled inappropriately or incorrectly, a business could get sued by the individual or the State and suffer significant damages, monetarily and publically,” Weiss says. “They need to aware of the laws.”
What happens in the majority of transgender-related cases is an employee is already working for a company when he or she decides at some point, ‘I’m transgender and I need to make this transition,’” Weiss says. “This is where I come in – before the employee transitions. I help get the employer to understand and conform to the law the right way. I also help the employee transition in a way that minimizes conflict and stress.”
Weiss is an ideal individual to handle this task. She is professional, knowledgeable, experienced and organized. She presents herself extremely well. If you think you’d be uncomfortable around her, well, she eases any potential uneasiness with her kind, warm, open persona.
“I help dispel myths about transgender people – and there are a lot of them,” she says. “There are a lot of misconceptions. Too many people get their information from sensationalized media stories and they need to know what the truth is.
“The truth is transgender people are just like anyone else,” she adds. “We’re not looking to get into the men’s or women’s restroom to spy on other women or men. We’re in there for exactly the same reason as you. We just want to be who we believe ourselves to be and to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace. That’s the crux of it.”
One of the stickiest issues regarding transgender people is the use of restrooms in the workplace.
If an employer says a female transgender employee cannot use the multiple-stall women’s restroom on the floor nearest to their workplace because it may make other employees uncomfortable and that they have to go two floors down and use a single-stall restroom reserved for the maintenance staff, it is illegal, Weiss says.
“You can’t make it difficult or isolate employees for being transgender,” she adds. “They have the same right to restroom use as anyone does according to their gender.”
There are different ways for businesses to handle this issue, depending on its workplace situation and environment. If a company has multiple single-stall restrooms, it can designate one as gender neutral, meaning anyone can use it.
“What you can’t do is say ‘this particular restroom is for transgender people only,’” Weiss says.
One company Weiss knows of once instructed a transgender worker to go across the street to another building to use a restroom. “You can’t do that or you will get sued,” she says.
“I am the same person you’ve known and respected all these years. I’m simply going to stop living what I considered a lie. This doesn’t change who I am or the job I am capable of doing. All I want is dignity and respect.”
While recalling that day in 2011, Weiss became emotional, especially after telling her interviewer that she received a standing ovation from her colleagues upon completing her speech.
Today, she says, “I’m not out to change people’s personal opinion about the process of transitioning or whether you like or don’t like transgender people. It’s not about how someone feels that’s important — it’s how they behave at the work place. That’s the main thing – how you behave toward others. I don’t need to change what’s in their heart – I just need be sure their behavior conforms with the law.”