Allyship, empathy, and supporting our transgender workers

June 20, 2019 Aaron Kinne

5-minute read

Love Rainbow

“At the highest level, I identify as a human.” 

With that declaration, Natalie Egan, CEO and founder of Translator, framed her life’s journey during a powerful and enlightening Workhuman® Radio interview, recorded at Workhuman® Live 2019 in Nashville. 

(Click the player above to listen to the full 18-minute episode.)

As a transgender person, Natalie spent the first 38 years of her life identifying as someone very different from who she is today. “I have an interesting perspective on both sides of the table, having run a business prior as CEO, then here as well.” 

A “serial entrepreneur,” she now heads a company that builds diversity inclusion training software for corporations, schools, and non-profits. According to Natalie, Translator is focused on “spreading empathy and equality at scale.” It shows people “how to be a better version of themselves, and how to accept other individuals, diverse individuals, and the marginalized individuals around them.” 

HR’s role in the transgender evolution

So what can HR organizations do to advance the inclusion of the transgender community in their organizations?

As Natalie points out, this is a “big issue and a challenge for a lot of organizations.” Recent studies indicate that from 4% to 5% of the population is transgender, and for some organizations, that can translate into thousands of employees.  

“And if you think about it, their families, their partners, their spouses, their children … there’s an entire ecosystem of just your employee base – let alone your customers, let alone your vendor partners, let alone your recruits.”

In her view, HR organizations should start by proactively educating themselves. “Otherwise, you’re going to start having to deal with this reactively, and that’s where it can get really messy.” 

According to Natalie, it’s important that organizations get ready for what she calls “the trans economy.” She defines this as a “wave of people that are hitting the workforce. They’re customers. They’re partners. They’re real people. They’re all of us.”

The “movable middle”

The topic of the trans experience evokes strong, vocal emotions on both ends of the spectrum – from rejection to acceptance. But what about the people in the middle”? Natalie refers to this group as the “movable middle” – those who want to be supportive and involved, but aren’t sure how to learn about, discuss, and better understand the trans journey. 

Natalie believes it’s important that we drive the narrative for this group, because in many instances, “people are educated about the trans experience through the media.” And for the most part, that’s not a good thing.  

Along with television sitcoms such as “Friends,” she cites the example of the Tone Lōc song, “Funky Cold Medina” and its reference, “Sheena was a man.” “To me, that was traumatic as a child. I mean, I didn’t understand my identity, but I certainly didn’t want to be that, right?”

Thankfully the topic of transgender identity has become vastly more mainstream in 2019. Natalie shared that, after her presentation at Workhuman® Live this year, people came up to her telling her about a niece, a cousin, a best friend who had just started transitioning. 

“It’s sort of becoming viral in a lot of ways, and people ask me all the time, ‘Why is this happening?” The answer in her view? The Internet.

“My whole life I thought I was the only one. I grew up thinking I’m the only one, and the internet started to show me that I’m not the only one.” 

The concept of “allyship”

Her advice to the “movable middle”? Get educated. Seek out information, because the mainstreaming of the trans community is real. “It’s probably happening in your school. There’s probably gender nonconforming students in your kid’s class.”

Natalie believes it really comes down to storytelling. “That’s how we create empathy. We walk in someone else’s shoes. And that only happens when you have a story.”

This is where the concept of “allyship” – the process by which those in positions of privilege and power reach out to understand and support marginalized groups – comes into play. “Being an ally is way different than being a fan.” It means taking an active role in advancing the interest of other groups. It means stepping up to help.

Supporting the transgender colleague

So, what should you do if, for instance, a co-worker comes out as transgender? What should you say? How can you help make the transition easier?

The first thing, according to Natalie, is offer congratulations. “Whenever someone comes out, it is a congratulatory moment. It’s a big deal. That moment is really important in terms of preserving the relationship – especially in a corporate or professional setting.”

Her next advice? “Ask them their pronouns. And is there any other way I can support you?” 

What should you not do? “I think a lot of people feel like, ‘Okay, now it’s time to starting asking deep questions.’ And that is absolutely not the case.”  

“As a trans person who’s been through this, you wouldn’t believe the number of people that immediately start asking question like, ‘How far are you going to go?’ and ‘Does this mean you’re a lesbian now?’”

It all comes down to empathy – treating humans as humans. As Natalie reiterated, “the secret to empathy is storytelling. We have to be able to walk in someone else’s shoes to feel what they feel … I’m a living case study to that. I grew up in a bubble of white male privilege with access to resources, and I had no idea.” 

The business case for diversity

In closing, Natalie touched on a general observation about the richness and strength a diverse culture brings to an organization. “I think we’re realizing that assimilation and a homogeneous culture is actually a liability.”

Echoing the argument for crowd-sourced decision-making and performance management, she notes that, “The same way you diversify your portfolio, you diversify an employee base. You’re going to make less ill-informed decisions when you have people with different perspectives and unique ways of thinking.” 

In the end, it’s all about treating all people like humans. “If I’m going to take any labels, it’s human first. Approach people like humans, have some humility, and just be real with people.” 

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About the Author

Aaron Kinne

Aaron Kinne is a senior writer at Workhuman.

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