How do you recognize people—acknowledge that you truly see them as their authentic selves—when they’re going through something extraordinary but also just want to live their lives? It’s a balancing act coworkers must try to pull off—imperfectly, humanly—when a transgender employee comes out.
“Transitioning is crazy hard,” says Maddie Smith, an Oracle Cloud Infrastructure principal engineer who came out in 2020. “And I was terrified of coming out at the workplace.”
Many transgender people are wary of the stereotypes amplified in TV shows and movies. All too often, transgender characters have been portrayed as tricksters whose true gender identity is a shocking secret. The Netflix documentary Disclosure notes that over 80% of Americans don’t personally know a transgender person.
There’s no one way to come out
When Smith first attempted to come out at Oracle last May, “I chickened out,” she says. “I had a regular meeting with my manager and planned to tell him at the end, but I was super-nervous. But the next week, I finally got enough courage. I told him I’m trans and wanted to figure out what the process was at Oracle.” After checking in with HR, her manager got back to her and they devised a plan: Before coming out fully, she would break the news to coworkers in an email.
Smith says about one-third of her coworkers responded with encouraging messages, commending her bravery and sharing stories about transgender people they know.
“When someone comes out, I think it’s always OK to congratulate them,” she says. “You just have to be careful about their shyness. If you’re not sure, you can always ask them how open they are to talking about it.” Dramatic changes in appearance make it impossible to avoid the subject, Smith says. “Your coworkers, just like your friends and family, will be along for the ride.”
Kate Fisher, an Oracle Cloud Infrastructure sales executive who transitioned at Oracle five years ago, points out that the process varies from person to person. “Because I’m in sales, I’m very relational,” she says. “So I started my coming out process about nine months before I went through the formal transition at work. I started with HR and our management team and then spoke individually with most everyone else I worked with, including customers.”
Fisher wanted to allow coworkers to be vulnerable and even confused about what it means to be trans—for instance, which pronouns she prefers. “I knew that most of them had no experience with transgender people or training in how to interact with us,” she says. “I was sure they’d be wondering, ‘Oh, gosh, how do I do this? Do I treat her now the same as I used to or more like the other women in the office?’ I tried to have empathy. In a different way, they were going through a transition, too.”
Happy employees, better performance
“One of the joys of being trans is having the opportunity to choose a new name,” Fisher says, but this sometimes becomes a challenge in corporate HR systems. “In the transgender community, we refer to our previous names as ‘deadnames.’ To be addressed by the wrong name is not just weird but hurtful. It’s not recognizing your identity. That’s why it’s so important for companies to get it right.”
Maddie Smith’s recent career shows the power of being yourself. In June 2020, the month after she came out, she started working on an important cybersecurity project. “It was kind of scary, because it involved working closely with senior executives,” she says. “It was like, ‘Oh wow, I’ve not only just come out, but now I’m on the phone with a VP all freaking week.”
As both the project and her workplace transition progressed, Smith felt more relaxed and focused. In fact, she uncovered and helped remediate two critical issues. These and other “tremendous contributions” (her director’s words) led to her promotion to principal engineer.
When people she met on the project commended her performance, “they recognized me only as Maddie,” she says. “I thought that was amazing.”
Learn more about Oracle’s workplace culture where we embrace employee authenticity.
Mark Jackley is an Oracle digital content specialist.