Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

December Harvard Business Review Features "When Steve Becomes Stephanie"

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | December 17, 2008 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: gender transition, Harvard Business Review, transgender, transsexual, workforce, workplace protections

As I discussed a while back, the Harvard Business Review, one of the world's foremost business publications and read by business elites in every country in the world, is weighing in on transgender workplace issues this month. Every month, HBR contains a "case study," a complex fictional scenario designed to illustrate an issue that businesses face, inviting three industry experts to comment.

The December issue of HBR features a case entitled "When Steve Becomes Stephanie." The subtitle is "What does a star player's gender change imply for a traditional company's culture?" Readers are invited to comment online, and there are some interesting comments.

HBR has succeeded in bringing out transgender workplace issues to the world business community in a way that invites serious intellectual thought about how businesses can and should handle gender transition in the workplace, other than the traditional "you're fired" method. There were a lot of ways this project could have gone wrong, but HBR really did its homework.

At the same time, it should be recognized that the HBR case study does not, can not and should not be required to do all the work necessary to address the severe and systemic problems that transgender employees face. It is a giant step in the right direction, but it focuses on a star performer in a Fortune 1000 company earning megabucks. As some Bilerico readers have so cogently pointed out, few transgender people are so fortunate. Nonetheless, this is the perfect scenario to attract the attention of the corporate high-flyers who comprise HBR's audience. It's also an entertaining read.

I provided some editorial assistance on the case, and I was particularly struck by the amount of time and effort put into it by the authors and the HBR editors. There were dozens of phone conferences discussing various nuances, and many, many rewrites and tweaks. I've never seen such effort put into other journalistic enterprises, and this was more akin to writing a legal brief than anything else. In the end, they succeeded in putting together a case study that poses a serious business question: If you had an employee essential to your business, who you couldn't stick in the back office or fire on some trumped-up work performance issue, and that employee told you they were going to transition from one gender to another, how would you handle the potential backlash from co-workers and clients? If you're involved in diversity training issues, I highly recommend ordering copies of the HBR case and commentaries.

The Case Study

The case begins by introducing Henrietta Mercer, a senior vice president for human resources at LaSalle Chemical, a fictional Fortune 1000 company located in Illinois that provides products and services to oil-drilling, refinery, and pollution-control businesses. She receives a letter from her daughter, a human genome researcher in Boston, who sends a copy of her Massachusetts drivers license renewal form, which reads "Complete only if something has changed--name, address, telephone number, gender designation." Nice touch, that. I didn't know Massachusetts had that on its form. And, indeed it does.

Change of Information (Leave this section blank if no changes)

__Check here if your name has changed. Please print your new name in the General Information section and your previous name below.
Previous Name: (Last, First, Middle) ____________________________________

__Check here if the address in the General Information section reflects a change of Mailing Address.

__Check here if the address in the General Information section reflects a change of Residential Address.

__Check here if height has changed. Current height is ft.___ in.___

__Check here if gender designation has changed. Note: additional documentation will be required.

Change Gender Designation to: __Male __Female

The case discusses Henrietta's musings about Steve Ambler, a rising star at LaSalle, who had informed senior management that he was going to become Stephanie. Karl Diener, the CEO, had asked Henrietta for regular updates on the problems LaSalle might face as a result--and matters had taken an unsettling turn that very morning. Henrietta had the weekend to collect her thoughts for a Monday meeting with Karl and the executive committee.

You'll have to read the case itself for all the twists and turns -- it's like a soap opera. But transition in the workplace often takes on a bit of a dramatic quality in my experience because confidentiality is hard to maintain prior to the announcement, and there are inevitably some people who act out their inner diva.

The Industry Experts: Raytheon, Prudential and Boeing

There are three industry commentators who discuss the case. The first is Linda E. Taylor, the director of work life, equity, and inclusion at Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson, Arizona. She has experience with seven gender transitions. Her advice: don't wait until someone walks in the door and tells you he or she is transitioning. Amen to that. She also notes that their inclusive culture gives them a recruiting advantage.

Ronald K. Andrews is vice president and head of human resources for Prudential's U.S. businesses and is based in Newark, New Jersey. He has experience with one gender transition, but very high profile, involving a corporate officer who oversaw billions in client dollars. That's billions with a "B". It was handled very smartly, and in the end, the transgender employee retained her customer-facing position and not a single client was lost.

Stasha Goliaszewski is a scientist and engineer in integrated defense systems at Boeing in Philadelphia. At the time she transitioned, Boeing had a surgical requirement, and they were responsible for one of the worst legal precedents on the books: Doe v. Boeing, 121 Wn.2d 8 (Wash. 1993):

Doe informed Boeing of her belief that in order to qualify for sex reassignment surgery, she would have to live full time, for 1 year, in the social role of a female....Upon being notified of Doe's intentions, Boeing informed Doe that while Doe was an anatomical male, she could not use the women's rest rooms or dress in "feminine" attire. Boeing informed Doe that she could dress as a woman at work and use the women's rest rooms upon completion of her sex reassignment surgery....On November 4, 1985...Doe wore attire that her supervisor considered acceptable....The next day, Doe came to work wearing similar attire, but she included as part of her outfit a strand of pink pearls...[This] was unacceptable in that the addition of the pink pearls changed Doe's look from unisex to "excessively" feminine. Doe was subsequently terminated from her position at Boeing as a result of her willful violation of Boeing's directives

Boeing fired someone for wearing...pearls? Not even a tiara? The Washington Supreme Court dismissed the employee's lawsuit. Now, of course, Washington State is one of the twelve states that prohibits employment discrimination based on gender identity. And Boeing has one of the most transgender-friendly environments in the country. Oh my, how times have changed.

Ms. Goliaszewski's transition contributed to Boeing's change from a highly restrictive policy to one that recognizes transgender employees as valued stakeholders. I was also pleased to contribute in a small way, working with Boeing on a change initiative in 2004 and 2005 that created one of the most transgender-friendly policies in industry anywhere. I was surprised at the time that an aero-space defense contractor would be interested in such a change. I'm no longer surprised. The larger the organization -- and Boeing is one of the largest employers in the country -- the more gender transitions it will see. As Ms. Goliaszewski says: "Statistically, a company Boeing's size should have one or two transsexuals coming out a year." In addition, the more competitive the industry -- and aerospace is one of the most competitive -- the greater the need to remove any distractions from the workplace environment.

The Effect of HBR's Case

Gender identity discrimination is starting to be recognized at the highest echelons as an unacceptable form of employment discrimination. The highest-level recognition came last month, when the transition team of President-elect Obama included gender identity in its non-discrimination policy. While most transgender people do not have jobs in the Fortune 1000 or in the federal government, the recognition of the issue as legitimate by business and government leaders will allow others to bring this issue into the trenches -- the blue collar and service industry jobs where most transgender people seek employment. Unemployment and underemployment of transgender people is rampant, and the HBR case by itself will do nothing to change this in the near term. But as part of a trend, it signals hope for the future, and, possibly, a lever to move the issue forward.

[If you'd like to read more on these issues, and a response to a reader's comment, the next post in this series at The Bilerico Project can be found here.


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That's an absolutely fascinating article, Jillian. Thanks for pointing it out, I'd have missed it!

A point which has not been addressed in the comments of the abbreviated case is the difficulty in identifying, attracting and retaining top performing sales and sales management professionals. The matter is a strategic one, though some who commented seem to view it more as a legal or "social good" matter rather than the deep strategic business issues which are apparent.

Key is the retention and continued motivated efforts by the line salesman and the continued direction by one who is both knowledgeable of the acquiring company's business and culture and tasked with integrating the sales forces. They do different things and top management has determined one to be better at direction than the other who may be a stellar performer but may not be a manager.

There is an additional twist to this: the sales person is older than the transitioning manager and harbors resentment about possibly being passed for promotion due to his age.

LaSalle may experience a great deal of disruption, not due to a transitioning manager but rather to an incompetent personnel management strain within the organization.

Michael Flynn | December 18, 2008 11:58 AM

This was a great case study. Nicely done.

This is a great article, and hopefully will cause more companies to address this issue before it becomes an issue. I remember when I was out on the job a few years back and was being harassed daily, and I went to my supervisor. After giving me the "I'm totally supportive" speech, he said, "Well, what do want me to do?" I was speechless - after being in business for over a century and employing around 250 people, they've never had to deal with someone being out? Well, they sure acted like it, and I was gone in about a month (my choice on paper).

Having a plan already in place isn't just about being prepared - it also shows the employee that the company actually cares. And to get that message in a high-profile journal like the HBR will help a lot of people. Thanks, Jillian!

Being an employee who's very recently transitioned on the job in a Fortune 1000 company I am really impressed with the level of sensitivity and directness of this article. Great job!

While transitioning I did not lose my job, but I did impact co-workers, and after my transition was complete I was promoted. I did have to maintain the same workload despite doctors appointments, HR meetings, as well as managing my home life.

I did have a lot to go through, but I feel that I must acknowledge my change was very arduous event for everyone involved in the process. It is important to remember co-workers, management, the company and customers are also transitioning (in a different way) with the transitioning employee.

Congrats on a great article and thank you. :)

Everyday Transperson | December 23, 2008 12:21 AM

Dr. Weiss,

While I can appreciate to some degree as to the purpose of this case study, which was to raise awareness of trans people in the workplace, I feel that I must bring up this important point.

According to the 2008 2nd edition of HRC's "Transgender Inclusion in the Workplace" report http://www.hrc.org/documents/HRC_Foundation_-_Transgender_Inclusion_in_the_Workplace_2nd_Edition_-_2008.pdf
you and a few other transgender "activists"/"consultants" are listed in the report as the "go to" people that companies should contact for diversity training about transgender workplace issues.

My question then is if you folks are going to "consult" companies already as to how the rest of us should transition in our workplaces, then why promote a case study in the first place soliciting outside opinions ??? It would appear to me that companies will take both your, Out and Equal and HRC's advice as gospel anyway, like they have already done in the past when adopting transgender policies, so why bother with anyone else's opinion ??? The little cottage industry already seems to be firmly in place with little hope of new people coming in to educate..........

Additionally, I find it quite ironic that this case study was formulated in the Harvard elitist circle, when its the same corporate elitist circle which donates large sums of corporate donations and "sponsorships" to HRC, the very organization that referenced you all in the above report.

So Dr. Weiss, I don't mean to continue to rain on your parade here, but I fail to see how case studies such as this one helps, when its all going to be about the elitist circle, with elitist characters, formulated by folks who are going to educate companies as to THEIR own agenda anyway based on the system they currently have in place.

As I had said in previous posts, let the transgender employees do the educating and leave the politics and agendas to those who are in those circles. Please remember that contrary to popular belief, transgender "consultants" and "activists" do not speak for ALL of us in the workplace, regardless of HRC political connections and elitist cronies............

Thank you for your time.

Mejan A Floss | January 12, 2009 2:26 PM

While the Case Study was interesting, how about some more "Down to Earth" points that affect many of us who are in the middle of transition and are looking for work or in the process of changing jobs.

I have been transitioning for just over a year, and have not had the finances to change my name, much less my gender marker (nor the $ to have any surgery). The latter takes surgery (though no specification of what or how much is needed) to change my Birth Certificate in the state I was born in, or get a Court Order of change in the state I live in.

This means my birth name is still my legal name, and MUST be used on all job applications. However, I no longer live in that gender, and also want to use my chosen name. (I am a Licensed Professional under state law, and can lose my license if I make "false" public statements.

Also, do I mark my birth gender, my chosen gender, or being in transition, do I mark BOTH, and take the fallout of that shock to HR? Ive decided to NOT mark either, and try to explain when interviewed. Of course, that is problematic as I intend to state my name as Male Birth Given Name "Chosen Female Given Name" Birth Last Name. Which will be legally accurate, but I expect will say more than I want to at this time, and cause I fear, my application to be discarded.

Also, I have a Carry Letter, and have used the women s room exclusively for the past year. I have rarely had anyone treat me as anything other than a lady. I pass almost seamlessly, even in one of the most conservative southern cities. I cannot go back to the Men's room, even if it is a requirement of a job. I am NOT a man any more!

Anyway, how about all these issues and more than we face just getting a job, or letting our references know of our gender change.

Very few of us will be "Star Players" and many want to just "disappear" into our proper (Chosen) gender, or go into deep stealth.

Thank you for your consideration.

Interesting post. Gender identity discrimination is starting to be recognized at the highest echelons as an unacceptable form of employment discrimination.