Another associate at my firm told me that he’s transitioning. He’s the first trans person I’ve met, and I do not want to accidentally offend him. How do I approach this?
Cis and Confused
Dear Cis and Confused,
Your coworker confiding in you is indicative of the trust between you two.
To respectfully approach this, we recommend a follow-up with your coworker over coffee, lunch, or whatever makes sense for your working relationship. Thank them for being open and trusting you. They might’ve chosen new ways to identify themselves, so ask what pronouns and name they prefer you use when referring to them privately and publicly. Ask how private this matter is. You may be the first person at the firm they’ve told, and you never want to out someone without their explicit prior consent; their transition is not your story to tell. Finally, ask what else you can do to support them. Moving forward, honor their wishes and continue business as usual. Be mindful that as your coworker continues their journey, they may change their name, pronouns, or gender presentation one or more times. They’re exploring their identity. It is your job to affirm them at every step.
Transitioning can involve different things for different people, and, importantly, there is no “correct” way. One aspect is internal transition, which is the understanding your coworker did to realize their identity. Another is social transition, or the “coming out” aspect of your coworker changing how they present themselves to others, which may involve changing their name and pronouns. Transitioning can also involve legal processes, such as updating documents with a chosen name, and gender-affirming medical care. But, as we noted, there is no one way to transition. Your coworker may never change their name or pronouns but may change the way they dress. They may choose some types of medical care but not others. All means of transitioning or not are valid, and choosing one type of transition but not another doesn’t make them any less trans.
Importantly, it is up to your coworker to share with you, if they want, any details about their transition. They do not have to tell you, and you should respect their privacy and boundaries.
We want to circle back to pronouns. We noted that your coworker’s pronouns may change as they explore their identity. We’ve been referring to your coworker using “they,” and you used “he” in your question. We aren’t certain if “he” is your coworker’s old pronoun or new since they just came out to you. When unsure, we at Dear Alex opt for gender-neutral pronouns. The follow-up conversation we recommend will allow for the dialogue between you and your coworker and a chance to learn what pronouns to use with your coworker moving forward.
We think a discussion of pronouns may help. As an initial point, people whose gender matches the one they were assigned at birth are referred to as “cisgender,” and like everyone, they have particular sets of pronouns they are or are not comfortable using. For example, if you’re a cisgender man (i.e., you grew up being called a boy, felt affirmed by and comfortable with that, and still identify as a man today), you likely use the pronouns he/him/his. Trans people may switch from one set of gendered pronouns to another (e.g., he/him/his to she/her/hers). On the other hand, they might opt for gender-neutral pronouns like they/them/theirs or xe/xem/xyr.
For both trans and cis people, using the correct pronouns is the only respectful thing to do; for your trans colleague, it’s far from the only way to show you support them, but it’s a starting point. But what if you accidentally use the wrong pronouns or “misgender” them? It can happen, and the important thing is to give a quick apology using your coworker’s correct name and/or pronouns and then, throughout the rest of the conversation, use their correct name and/or pronouns. Don’t ask for forgiveness or get emotional—then you’re making it about you and not them. By correcting yourself and striving to correctly identify them, it will show them the effort you’re making. If your coworker pulls you aside and explains a mistake you made, thank them for telling you, apologize briefly, say you’ll do better, and then do better. Remember when a trans person tells you that you made a mistake, they’re saying, “I value our relationship despite mistakes you might’ve made. My correcting you is a way to preserve it.”
We gave you lots of information. Thankfully, it boils down to this: when your trans coworker tells you how to respect them, do what they ask. We’re excited for you both and hope this information will help you do right by your coworker.
My company just hosted a great information session on neurodiversity. I learned a lot, and I now suspect one of my colleagues might have a neurodivergent condition. How do I ask them about it?
I just want everyone to feel supported
The answer to your question is very simple: you don’t. Neurodivergent conditions like autism and Tourette’s syndrome are, at the end of the day, medical diagnoses. There is no respectful way to ask a colleague if they have a medical condition, and that is none of your business, no matter your intention. The best way you can support your colleague is to continue being kind and respectful. If your colleague does have a neurodivergent condition, they might decide to tell you at some point. It is their choice.
If you are a manager and suspect one of your direct reports may be neurodivergent, it is still their choice whether to tell you. In the meantime, be a good manager—someone your team can trust and come to when they have an issue. Make it clear to your reports that you are on their side and that they can come to you about anything, substantive or otherwise. Create that environment for them. Then, if a neurodivergent direct report or colleague feels like you need to know about their condition, they’ll tell you and let you know how you can specifically support them.
We understand this may not be the answer you were hoping for, but it’s the correct one. Some of us here at Dear Alex are neurodivergent and have had our boundaries crossed, and we hope this helps you to avoid such a scenario.