During an employee’s gender transition, virtually every workplace benefit can come into play, including drug coverage, employee assistance programs, flexible working options, mental-health programs and diversity initiatives. For Tamara Hansen, a delivery manager specialist at Scotiabank, coming out as transgender after more than three decades with her employer has been an emotional journey.

“I get close to tears quite a bit now, and it’s tears of joy,” she says. “Before I transitioned, there was a lot of anxiety and stress. And that, too, was incredibly emotional, but that’s all disappeared and it’s been replaced by joy.”

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In 2015, Hansen began hormone replacement therapy. While Scotiabank wasn’t involved in that first step, her group benefits plan covered the drugs, including estrogen and anti-androgens. “I wasn’t about to come out at that point,” she says. “I wanted to see how far the hormone replacement therapy would take things. . . . That took several years and there was always this, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work out, what am I going to do?’ Because once you start hormone replacement therapy, the body starts changing, and you might get to a point where you can’t present properly as male and you can’t present properly as female.”

Workplace support

In 2018, Hansen began reaching out to a few colleagues about her transition. “That was a petrifying moment, but Scotiabank has got a fantastic policy in place, and I knew I could fall back on that,” she says. “I knew the bank would have my back, but when it comes down to it, it’s individuals.”

Positive reactions from certain colleagues gave Hansen the momentum to speak to management, and as soon as she spoke to her vice-president, everything kicked into high gear. “I was put in contact with other trans people at the bank, through the VP,” she says. “And separately, at the same time, through HR, I was put in contact with the workplace accommodation folks.”

Working with its consultant, Morneau Shepell Ltd., the bank prepared sensitivity training for Hansen’s 250 colleagues. In groups of 30, everyone participated in learning sessions about what it means to be transgender.

Read: How to support transgender employees

The plan started coming together in a matter of days, she says. “All of the documentation, the plan, the training material, was presented to me. I had to be comfortable with what it said. I had to be comfortable with the timeline. If I said no to something, it stopped. And rightfully so, but I hadn’t expected that. Going into this, I had expected that I was going to be the one doing all of the legwork. They did the legwork behind the scenes.”

At the same time, Hansen set a date for when she wanted to arrive at work as Tamara for the first time. “The old me left the bank for the very last time, never to return. I spent the next week getting myself ready, with the new me.”

Hansen wanted her appearance to be remarkably different when she came back to work. That meant getting her hair done and ears pierced, and practicing being a woman in public. When she arrived at work, she received total acceptance, she says. “The reaction I had from people was more of ‘I’m so sad you waited this long,’ as opposed to what I’d expected, which was that I would have to justify what I’m doing.”

Timelines are everything

Scotiabank recognizes timing can be critically important in supporting a transitioning employee, says Lizna Husnani-Puchta, senior manager of workplace accommodation at Scotiabank. How colleagues and management are informed, and ensuring all the appropriate changes are made regarding new names and pronouns, needs to be managed with care, she adds.

“The challenge has been managing through all the bank’s systems where changes to their name and pronoun require updating,” says Husnani-Puchta. “At an organization this big, we are still refining the process. . . . There’s a lot of work in the background to coordinate training and to ensure our internal and external stakeholders get looped in to update the systems within the timelines set out in the plan of support.

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“More important in the process is ongoing communication and flexibility to ensure we progress at the rate comfortable for the employee transitioning.”

Bringing in a consultant is a helpful option for an employer handling something they’ve never taken on, says Kevin McFadden, president of McFadden Benefits.

Brave new world

As a society, Canadians are becoming more accepting and accommodating of transgender individuals. Most (77%) Canadians feel trans people should be protected from discrimination by the government, but only 41% said they’d refer to a trans woman with feminine pronouns and 40% said they’d refer to a trans man with masculine pronouns.

Source: Ipsos Public Affairs survey, January 2018

“Some third-party advice with some experience behind it would be beneficial for most organizations, so that’s something I certainly would encourage if an employer was looking at ways to best accommodate and support the transitioning employee.”

Generally, employers should look at a transition in the same way they would any major change, like the birth of a child, says McFadden, noting lack of experience is likely the biggest challenge employers face in providing support. They can start by preparing an outline of the relevant benefits they already offer, he adds.

Safe haven

Alongside its accommodation process, Scotiabank also supported Hansen through its workplace benefits — its health plan covers hormone replacement therapy and voice training, and she was able to speak to a counsellor through the company’s employee assistance program.

But the next steps will be a different story. While gender reassignment surgery is covered by the province’s health-care system, cosmetic surgeries to feminize Hansen’s body are considered elective, so she’ll have to cover the costs herself.

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She says the bank has been flexible about her increased number of medical appointments. “Because I’ve had complications, I’ve had a barrage of doctors who are seeing me on a very regular basis for followups . . . and being able to work around these is huge.”

While each trans individual has personal preferences about how to express their gender identity, Hansen says she used to be preoccupied with presenting as female in a way she felt was complete, rather than as a stage in a process moving towards femininity. Now that she’s started her life as Tamara, she’s no longer as concerned about going unnoticed. She considers her workplace a safe haven on those days when she gets one too many glances on the commute to work.

“When I went down this path, I was adamant that I just wanted to blend in and disappear into the fabric of society. So being passable was huge,” she says. “The support and the outpouring of love I have felt after I came out leads me to make statements that it’s not important how I look, what my voice sounds like. It’s not important. People are accepting me as me for the first time. That’s what’s important.”

Read: How to communicate health benefits to a diverse workforce

As society becomes more accepting, Husnani-Puchta believes more employees will be seeking this type of support from their employers. “[It] can be one of the scariest things to do to step out and express their authentic self. My advice [to employers] would be to listen and be empathetic.

“We step into a small portion of a long journey, and our role as an employer to make it as smooth as possible is paramount.”

Martha Porado is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.

Copyright © 2019 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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