While working for a large, international company Ethan Salathiel became the first person in his workplace to transition. His experience of doing so led him to a change in career and he now works supporting other businesses with workplace inclusion and wellbeing. Here, Ethan shares what he has learned about transitioning in the workplace.
I was lucky that my overall experience was a positive one. I worked in a senior, global role at HSBC at the time and told my line manager during my end of year review via video conference because he was based in Hong Kong.
After prepping what to say, I went for it and…*KAPUT*…the screen went dead! What a comedy moment…just as I was about to tell all…nothing, [BLANK]! I rang him back and said what I needed to from the heart and was faced with what seemed like a long silence. To his credit, he was totally supportive, just a little shocked. A few weeks later I had a meeting with HR to plan the details of my transition including the system changes needed.
I drew two key things from my own coming out experience and the administration that followed:
- You have to be brave and face your fears head on. It wasn’t the most comfortable conversation to have with someone at work but I knew it was a means to an end and therefore needed to happen.
- Being totally open and ‘human’ about my experience helped to make the situation more relatable for all involved.
Trans & Non-binary Policy Development
HR were good at driving through the necessary system changes such as my Group Directory details, email address, payroll, etc. However, the emotional support could have been better. Being on the LGBTQ+ workplace committee (HSBC Pride) helped me during the initial transition due to the sense of community it provided. What was lacking in the formal process, was made up for by the support of HSBC Pride. The Chair put me in touch with a trans woman who I met with for regular coffees. There were no trans men to compare notes with at the time – I was the first. Looking back, I had to use creativity to find the support I needed such as these informal coffees, to fill any gaps in the official policy.
The other obvious gap to me was around communication. Following an agreed date with HR which would see my name and gender switch to my new identity; my ‘go live’ date, if you like, there was no central communication out to the wider team. This meant that multiple times per day I had to answer the phone and explain my story (as my voice did not match my perceived gender) in an open plan office – not the easiest thing to do at the best of times and especially working for an international organisation which meant regularly being faced with different cultural nuances!
Because I was the first trans man to openly transition at HSBC UK, HR asked me to develop the Trans and Non-Binary Policy, to improve the way things were done. I was delighted to be able to help.
HR wanted to draw on lived experience and evolve the loose guidance they had into a more robust policy. This involved building a framework with more contact points along the journey and support via a buddy/mentor system. I advised on the use of the building’s facilities which was another area that needed to be addressed and encouraged ‘safe spaces’ to be created for trans people to cope during times of unease at work.
I think the key consideration during policy development is to carefully think through people’s day-to-day workplace navigation or Employee Experience. This includes their skillset, tools available to them, team(s) dynamics, and facilities/space usage: essentially, their system and how it operates.
Employee wellbeing has become a widely discussed topic from the point of view of mental and physical health at work during Covid19. The connection between mind and body is one on which I have always put a great deal of importance. I believe body responds to mind and mind responds to body. Being a Trans man makes that relationship even more prevalent, not just because of the alignment of my mind and body but, having gone through five major operations, I needed to rely on my positive outlook and resilience to get through and recover physically.
Improving workplace wellbeing
Employers can look to Employee Networks and draw on and share the lived experience of those who have shown resilience and innovation – key qualities of a diverse workforce according to a recent McKinsey report1.
Secondly, we could see well-being as ‘a way of being’ as opposed to a fixed destination. A global leader in Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman says that Well-being Theory is THE topic of his discipline. He defines well-being as including people’s positive emotion, engagement, relationships, sense of meaning or purpose, and accomplishment in life. People that experience good well-being, are enabled to function at their best and this needs to be sustained over the long-term.
As a result of my gender transition and the work I have done since, I view change in a more holistic and systemic way. I believe that everyone experiences transition all of the time. For example, Covid19 has meant rethinking the way we all work with significant changes to our work patterns. However, there are also job changes, promotions, house moves, periods of parental leave etc. that result in transition of some kind. A period of learning and adaptation for people and businesses.
What can we do to better embrace change in the workplace?
- Carefully think through the Employee Experience and make it as open, connected and as inclusive as possible ensuring the right support is in place at the right time.
- Look to Employee Networks such as LGBTQ+ resource groups, for examples within the existing workforce of highly adaptable people and draw key learnings from them which can be built into organisational culture and design.
- View the workplace as a dynamic system. An intersectional approach is one that views people for all that they are across many spectrums. For example, I am not just a trans man, I have lived and worked in a female body, I am a husband and father and many more things. By viewing people and their systems of influence in this way, we can build a more inclusive workplace where diversity is truly celebrated.
Overall, I was fortunate that despite a few adjustments along the way, my experience of transition in the workplace was positive. It was empowering for me as an individual to finally bring my full and authentic self to work. While I paved the way in my workplace, it is my hope that all employers will take a more proactive and intersectional approach in ensuring that trans people, and people from other minority communities, will be able to be their true selves while at work.