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4 Distinct Ways to Support an Employee through their Transition Journey

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IBM has a long history of supporting the LGBT+ community. In 2017, we launched our Gender Transition in a Global Workplace framework and corresponding whitepaper. This framework is being used to support many IBMers across the world through one of the most significant moments of their lives—coming out as transgender. It covers elements such as educating the manager, the team, and logistical steps to support the employee and alleviate the stress of transitioning as much as possible.

Claire, a Software Engineer at IBM, shares her experience from the time she started exploring her gender identity all the way up to announcing it to the team. Her manager, Luanne, also shares the experience from her perspective on how she was given the opportunity to be an empathetic manager and an LGBT+ ally by providing the right support to her team member.  

1. Provide a safe space to explore their gender identity.

Claire: I first began experimenting with my gender identity and presentation over a year before coming out at IBM. Initially, I had no intention of ever coming out in a professional setting. My plan was to explore my gender identity in my personal life and continue to identify as a man in my professional life. As I continued exploring my gender identity, it became clear that the best thing to do was to be completely honest with everyone in my life. I decided to come out as transgender to everyone I have contact with in both my personal and professional lives.

For about a year, I went through an “incubation period” where I presented as female with my friends but presented as male at work and in public spaces. This provided me with a safe space where I could experiment with my presentation. I would have been completely overwhelmed if I were experimenting with clothing, makeup, body language and speech while also trying to keep my mind on work tasks.

In late summer of 2020 I began to make a plan for coming out publicly. I started by informing my second-line manager Luanne. I felt comfortable divulging a sensitive piece of information like that with her, but needed to know what other resources might be available to transitioning IBMers. I knew that in such a large company, there must have been some precedent for IBMers in transition. I trusted Luanne to help me find the correct contacts since, as a manager, she has had more experience working with corporate HR than I have.

2. Give clear and timely answers—even to questions that seem difficult and sensitive.

Luanne: When Claire shared the news of her intent to transition, my mind was flooded with thoughts and questions. First, I was honored that she felt comfortable enough with me to share her truth. It is a moment in my IBM career that I will remember forever. 

Our team has a reputation for being a “family”, and I was proud if our culture played even the slightest role in Claire feeling comfortable enough to live her professional life as her authentic self. That thought was soon pushed aside by many other thoughts:  How do we do this? When do we announce this? What can I do to make this transition go as smoothly as possible? How do I add my pronouns to slack? How do we change names in IBM systems? Do I know anyone else who has transitioned at IBM?  How do I make sure that my conversations to prepare for this don’t violate Claire’s trust or privacy laws? Who can I talk to?   

Getting HR Support

After speaking more with Claire, I offered to find the person or organization in IBM to help with this. Some internal searches landed me on a name: Ella Slade, IBM’s Global LGBT+ Leader in HR.  Ella’s job title and the transgender pride flag in the background of their profile picture had me feeling like I found someone who could help me. All of a sudden, I no longer felt alone. I reached out to Ella and found out that she covers LGBT+ inclusion globally. She shared that there is an entire framework of support in place to help IBMers transition. Ella always made time for us, making sure that the speed and details of this transition were aligned solely with Claire’s wishes.   

Claire, herself, also helped me feel more confident. She was calmer than I would have been, thoughtful, and also open. We had many candid conversations such as, “What are you worried about? Do you feel that any team members may have a hard time with this? Shall we tell a small set of the team first or the whole lab at once? Do you want me to talk to any of the managers or leaders in advance? When do you want to make the announcement? How should we handle any education? Name and pronoun slip-ups will inevitably happen (especially in the beginning), how do we want to address those? 

3. Present a clear framework to educate the team, leadership, and the rest of the company.

Claire: As I was coming out to the team, Luanne and Ella helped me coordinate the logistics of announcing my transition. Luanne spoke with our department’s leadership team about my transition prior to my announcement to the rest of the team. Hearing some support from the leadership team made me feel more comfortable that my transition would not affect the day-to-day working relationships I hold with my team.

It also helped that Luanne was able to hold some conversations about my transition, rather than having them myself. At the same time as I was coming out to my team, I was also coming out to family members and old friends. I was having a lot of intense, emotional conversations with a number of people in a very short period of time. Even at their easiest, these conversations took a lot of emotional energy. Luanne was able to take the burden of a few of those conversations off of me.

The other critical piece of support I received was the existing framework for educating teammates on trans issues. Coming out takes plenty of emotional energy as it is. I would not have been up to the task of educating my teammates on trans issues, especially without knowing their current views or if they have ever known another transgender individual. Since there was existing education out there, I did not have to find my own words to explain my identity and the issues that trans people face.

Advice to other Team Managers

Luanne: Hands down, my best advice to any other managers going through the same thing is to reach out to your Diversity and Inclusion team and find out what support they have for transgender employees. I feel like Claire’s transition went exceedingly well. Primarily because of who our team is, IBM’s transition framework, and of course Claire’s openness.  

I would also like to send a message to all those teams who don‘t have anyone coming out to them. Statistically speaking, there are many LGBT+ people out there. Are you creating a culture where everyone feels comfortable to be themselves at work?

Managers must also be prepared for some self-discovery, even if they think they already have a strong grip on their allyship. One such moment for me came after Claire allowed me to have some “pre-announce” conversations with the leadership team. I remember saying, “I’m so happy that it is Claire transitioning. She is such a great technical resource and everyone loves working with her”. At that moment, I realized what I had said wasn’t right. It shouldn’t matter how productive or admired the person transitioning is.

Everyone deserves to be embraced for who they are, regardless of how they are performing in their job. I thought about how I would feel if I was carrying around the weight of living with a different gender expression than I felt internally. Guess what, I don’t think I would be half as productive with that weight on my shoulders.  Big reality check for me.  

4. Make your employee feel comfortable in prioritizing themselves and working with their own timelines.

Claire: When you come out in your workplace, you need to put yourself first. Nobody is going to be affected by your coming out in the way that you will be. Some people may feel more comfortable planning their coming-out months in advance. While others prefer to get it over with quickly. Some people may be more comfortable telling friends that they’ve made at work first, and some may feel more comfortable going straight to management. I don’t think there’s a wrong way to come out, as long as you’re coming out in a way that prioritizes your own feelings and comfort level above everything else. Your early transition is probably one of the times in your life when you’re the most vulnerable. You need to make sure you’re protecting yourself rather than trying to appease anyone else.

For more information about IBM’s LGBT+ Inclusion work please go to beequal.com. You may also download the whitepaper on Gender Transition in a Global Workplace here.

About the Authors

Claire, a Software Engineer, has been with IBM for nearly three years. In her free time, Claire plays the guitar and synthesizers and also collects vinyl records.

Luanne recently celebrated 35 years with IBM and is currently a Program Director. Travel and photography are two of Luanne’s favorite hobbies.

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