Q: How does a small company manage the workplace issues that arise when one of our staffers transitions from a male to a female? We want to be fair to this person, but we anticipate a variety of etiquette and political questions.
A: A generation ago, dilemmas such as these would have been highly unusual in an office.
Today, it’s a question that comes up, albeit infrequently, as we’ve become more open to workers bringing their personal lives and their identities to the office.
The ethical stance is no different than it would be in any other interaction at work.
“If you are talking of ethics, it’s simply a matter of mutual respect and open communication so that people are clear about their needs, so that others can respect those needs,” said Seymour Adler, a partner at AonHewitt Talent Solutions in New York City.
Adler recommends that managers encourage the employee to have an open discussion with her bosses and her team to share the news that she will begin looking different and to explain what is happening. (It’s not necessary for her to explain the reason behind the change, he emphasizes; that is no one’s business.)
The employee and management should come up with a list of accommodations that the employee would like to receive at work after the change, he said. For instance, there will be a specific date when she starts using the women’s bathroom. Other women in the office should be told that this is happening so they’re not surprised.
What you shouldn’t do is make the transition harder than it has to be. Your colleague is being open with you, so there’s no need for behind-the-scenes gossip; it’s a fact, not a scandal. If you need a mental model, pretend that Sue from accounting is moving house. It’s a big change for her, but no one would think of treating her differently because of it.
If you notice employees whispering, giggling, or sharing private jokes about this colleague, the best thing to do is to take them aside, in private, and calmly but firmly say that you expect the same level of respect for all employees. If it progresses to true harassment, look to your company’s anti-harassment policies. You may even have to fire the offenders.
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Because the case here is more complicated, there are social assumptions at work that you may need to tackle head-on. For instance, is it customary in your office to host baby or bridal showers and invite only the female employees? That tradition may need to change; maybe it’s time you invited both men and women. Or begin to include the employee who is changing genders.
The important thing is that you reassure both your employee and the rest of your workforce that this change will not disrupt either the professional or the social functioning of the team.
“Leaders have the responsibility of reinforcing those norms and of course personally modelling them,” Adler said.
Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at email@example.com.