Disclaimer – This article is not about the moral or ethical implications of someone changing their gender. Regardless of how you feel about this on a personal basis, having a transexual join your team can pose some very real challenges. This article will hopefully assist you in leading your team or company through this experience.
With Chastity Bono deciding to undergo a gender change, I thought it would be an appropriate time to share an experience I had as a project manager a few years ago. The project I was leading was a Y2K mainframe upgrade. I inherited the project in midstream and would classify it as “troubled” for a variety of reasons. Here is a short status of the project when I took over as the PM.
- Project was behind schedule
- Project scope was not defined
- Unbeknownst to me, I had been “sold” to the client as a mainframe expert. I barely knew what a mainframe looked like at that time – let alone how to lead a critical mainframe project for a large client.
- Both the client and consultant teams were in disarray.
- A hostile environment was in place due to all the above. Let’s just say the project managers on the client side of the fence, were determined to make my life miserable.
With all this going on, one of the first things I decided to do was to bring in an “expert” on mainframe upgrades. This would help build credibility with the client and also uproot some of the distrust that had taken seed on the project.
If you recall, in the year leading up to Y2K, programmers were in short supply. Experts were really hard to find and I did not have the luxury of taking my time to find the perfect fit for our team. I was fortunate enough to get a handful of candidates to interview and on paper one programmer stood out from all the others. Mary (that is not her real name) was exactly what I needed, except she lived in Denver and could only do an interview over the phone.
During the phone interview, Mary presented well, except something seemed odd. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I remember turning to my technical lead after the interview and asking him, “Did her voice sound ok to you?” My technical lead shrugged his shoulders and said she sounded technically proficient to him. I called Mary’s agency and told the program manager that we would like to move forward but that I had a question first. I asked him if there was anything I should know about Mary. He laughed and said that he got a lot of questions like that about her, but that I should be assured that she was technically, just what we needed. So – we brought Mary onto the team.
When I first met Mary, I was a little taken aback by her appearance. I’m not trying to be degrading here, this is just the honest truth. Mary looked like a man, although she had enough feminine qualities to make me believe that she was just a manly looking woman (I am not implying that all transexuals look like this, but in this case, this is what happened). Then, she opened her mouth and I was appalled. She cussed like a sailor – and for those of you who don’t know me… I was an officer in the Navy. I know what cussing sounds like, and Mary could do it with the best of them. She also had terrible body odor and passed gas regularly. She was however, technically proficient.
I spent the next three months, running interference for Mary and have quite a few memories of the experience.
- Her cubicle mate threatened to quit because of her gas and body odor. He got so fed up that he bought a large fan to blow the air out of the cubicle. Trying to keep peace on the team was a daily challenge.
- There was the evening that Mary and the Agency Director were the only two in the office, and Mary was cussing in her deep low voice because of some problem she was working on. I had to listen to a lecture on appropriate language in the workplace and then counsel Mary (again) on her choice of words.
- During this time, I had a constant stream of people in and out of my office. The most uncomfortable situation arose when one of the client’s managers came up to me and asked if Mary was a transexual. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure myself as I didn’t want to ask for a number of reasons. The manager’s major complaint was that women on his team were complaining that Mary was using the women’s restroom, when they thought she should be using the men’s. They had obviously made up their minds that Mary was really a he, but… as I said, this was never confirmed by anyone.
The first question you are probably asking, is why didn’t I let Mary go right away? Well, let’s look at this putting gender issues aside. Mary’s main problem was that she had body odor, passed gas and cussed. When confronted about the cussing, she stopped using her colorful language. Given that she was technically quite proficient, the project had a tight deadline, and I wouldn’t easily find a replacement for her, should I have let her go for passing gas and having body odor? Tough call. I chose to keep her on but let her go as soon as her portion of the work was completed. There were a lot of lessons learned here.
Never, Ever – make a hiring decision without meeting someone in person.
You absolutely cannot make gender an issue. I understand what non-discrimination means. This was a state project, and we couldn’t take Mary’s gender status into account. However, this made managing the team very difficult. I couldn’t directly ask Mary about her gender. What if she really was a woman? Then what? What if she was in the middle of a sex change? Then what? Regardless of how you feel about this, as a leader, you have to treat a transexual the same as everyone else.
Deal with behavioral issues. When people would come up and complain about Mary, I could only deal with specific behavioral issues. I would constantly tell people that I could only address performance or behavior. I did pull Mary aside several times to talk about her cussing and her hygiene.
Don’t pass judgement in front of your team. If you are facing this situation, be careful how you address the situation with your team. I would certainly consult your HR department or get legal counsel when faced with a transexual joining your team. As a leader though, you must set the example by treating the transexual in the same manner as everyone esle.
Treat others with respect. My biggest dilemma was what to do about the bathrooms. Mary had rights, but so did the others on the team. Luckily, I never had to confront this issue head on. The day after the state manager bought this up to me, he pulled me aside and told me to forget about the conversation. He had talked with HR, and they told him that it was discriminatory to address this situation. We had discussed getting Mary her own bathroom, but this had a lot of implications. He told me the other women would just have to deal with it. I’m not so sure that was the right solution though, because as I said, others have rights too. If Mary was really a man going through a sex change, then at what point do you consider her a woman? What if he just started the sex change process, and still looked very much like a man? Do you wait until the sex change operation? Think about it. In January, Martin is using the men’s restroom, then in February, Martin comes back as Mary and now just starts using the women’s restroom. What about travel for business? Some companies have policies that state employees will stay in the same room if they are of the same gender. Now what? This is a difficult area to manage.
You cannot be transparent to your team: I believe in open and honest communication. In this case though, I did a lot of listening, and very little talking. I discussed the situation with my management team, but not with the client or my team members. My main focus was to get the project done and to try to keep peace amongst the team members. If you take the gender issue out of the equation, it was very similar to other projects that I’ve managed.
Well, I’m not sure if I”ve given you a lot of answers. This is definitely a delicate subject. The outcome on my project? I was able to regain the client’s confidence, kept the new team together, treated Mary fairly and got the project done on time. It can be done.
Lead With Honor!