Transgender advocate Dana Pizzuti shares her tips on how to transition at work
Before she was an advocate of transgender issues, Dana Pizzuti was an executive at a Fortune 100 pharmaceutical firm, where she oversaw 500 employees in 33 countries. That’s a whole lot of people with whom she had to share the news of her gender identity, and — in a surprise to very few who’ve had a corporate job — she found her company ill-prepared to handle her transition.
In fact, she was reprimanded initially simply for wearing earrings. “I just got my ears pierced with simple studs, and I used to get clear manicures, and the thing that amazed me was the HR department came to me and said, ‘Your appearance is not appropriate for your position,’” Pizzuti said in a recent phone interview. She was shocked that it would be her actual human resources department — the very people tasked with making sure a company operates fairly, legally and without discrimination — that would request she remove the earrings. But they did.
It was just one of the many awkward interactions she had during transition, and the discomfort led to her new book, Transitioning in the Workplace: A Guidebook. Out in September, the book is part advice, part memoir of her own experience. It shares advice about coming out to colleagues, introducing a new name and setting a medical timeline with your manager, among so many other topics. Every transgender person has a different journey with its own pace, but Pizzuti’s book aims to provide some assistance along the way — both for trans employees and for the managers who want to avoid the inappropriate behavior that Pizzuti’s managers demonstrated. Here, she shares some of her top suggestions and most poignant stories from her own experience.
Assess your company’s culture first
Unfortunately, not every office in America has a progressive, inclusive philosophy, Pizzuti pointed out. But there are some ways to suss out your company to see how they’ll handle the news of your transition, especially if the company is on the bigger side. “Is there anything on their website about support, in terms of pride or LGBT issues?,” Pizzuti posed. “Do they have an employee resource group for LGBT issues? It’s a little bit of feeling out the company to see what they’re saying and doing.” She recommended examining the behavior of the executive team, giving the examples of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his vocal support for LGBTQ issues, and the ally group that Bank of America has made videos to promote. “That behavior must be modeled by people at the top,” Pizzuti said.
Start with human resources
After you’ve assessed the culture of your company and how this news might be received, it might be time to share the information with your manager and colleagues. Pizzuti recommended beginning with the folks who are trained to handle sensitive issues. “I tell everybody, go to the HR department,” she said. “Some companies have a diversity-inclusion department and so there’s people that are supposed to deal with this, who are sensitive to the concerns of individuals.” Some companies might even help you create a strategy for coming out to managers, colleagues, subordinates and clients, she added. “A lot of companies have templates that you can use to say, ‘I need to inform you that I have decided to transition. My name is... I appreciate your understanding,’” she said.
Tell people yourself whenever you can
Again, your physical distance and personal sensitivities may vary. Pizzuti found the best results not when she sent a form letter or mass email but when instead she told people in her own words, in person or over the phone. Face-to-face sharing was difficult, considering she supervised hundreds of employees overseas, so she arranged a conference call to tell around 150 of them at once. “I was a little worried because you can’t judge the room, so to speak, with the body language,” she said. “I went through my thing and it took 10 minutes and I said, ‘Any questions?’ Within like five minutes I started to get emails from people saying, ‘Oh, congratulations!’ And, ‘This team is with you!’ I got one quick email from a very junior person, ‘Very, very pleased to be working for you. Congratulations. It’s so brilliant.’ So even though I couldn’t do face to face, the personal touch was important.”
“I was a little worried because you can’t judge the room, so to speak, with the body language.”
Consider your medical timeline
Not every trans person goes through a medical transition or undergoes surgery, but if and when they do, an employer will probably need to know about this private matter simply due to the days out of the office. Pizzuti advised first that a trans person check on their insurance coverage, which a company’s benefits department could potentially help with, to see how their surgeries or hormones might be paid for. From there, take a look at the work calendar to see when you can spare a few days off. “I did my surgery around Christmas, so I was able to recuperate a little bit over the Christmas holidays because the company shut down,” she said. “So there’s that aspect: what makes sense with the cadence of your job.”
Talk to a lawyer
In the ideal world, this step wouldn’t be necessary. In this world, you might experience some issues around your identity. “Somebody refusing to use your new name, or giving you a hard time about the bathroom — that’s abuse, harassment, and those things usually can be addressed by going to HR,” Pizzuti said. “The first thing I would tell people to do is to get some outside legal advice. Having an outside legal adviser is really helpful to create the right documentation for you if anything happens.”
Not transgender? Here’s how to be a good ally
Pizzuti has a long list of ways that you can support a colleague who’s transitioning. “No. 1 is, be extremely positive with them,” she said. “Visibly participate in LGBT meetings to show that you support people. And generally, just be there for them. Talk to them privately and say, ‘Hey, how can I help? Is there anything I can do?’” Educate yourself in LGBTQ issues and terminology, and don’t be afraid to ask questions, she said. “I think people appreciate your interest in wanting to do the right thing,” Pizzuti said..