Workplace Gender Transition in an Embassy Environment

This article describes a suggested standard operating procedure (SOP) for human resource officers (HROs) on how to manage a workplace gender transition within the Department of State, in particular at an overseas post.  It addresses only workplace and human resources issues, not medical or other personal issues.

NOTE: Not all resources linked are available since some are located internally with the U.S. Department of State.


  • 1 Background
  • 2 Managing a Gender Transition
    • 2.1 Initial Conversation
    • 2.2 Transition Committee
    • 2.3 Post-Transition Transcript and Documentation Changes
  • 3 Lessons Learned
  • 4 References


Gender identity was added to the Department’s Statement on Discriminatory and Sexual Harassment in 2010.  In April 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Corporation (EEOC) ruled in Macy vs. the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms that discrimination based on gender identity is in fact sex discrimination and is subject to all Title VII provisions:

We conclude that intentional discrimination against a transgender individual because that person is transgender is, by definition, discrimination “based on . . . sex,” and such discrimination therefore violates Title VII.

An HRO is most likely to come face to face with issues of gender identity if and when an employee announces his or her intent to undergo gender transition.  As summarized in guidelines issued by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC),

[Gender transition] refers to the process through which a person modifies his or her physical characteristics and/or manner of gender expression to be consistent with his or her gender identity.  This transition may include hormone therapy, sex-reassignment surgery and/or other components and is generally conducted under medical supervision based on a set of standards developed by medical professionals.

Most medical professionals who work with transgender clients follow guidelines established by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH).  These guidelines require that a client be in counseling with a licensed social worker or psychologist prior to beginning hormone therapy.  Prior to sex-reassignment surgery, a transgender client must spend a minimum of one year living and presenting consistently with their gender identity.  It is when an employee is planning to begin this real-life experience that he or she is most likely to approach an HRO.

There are as yet no updates to the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) or Foreign Affairs Handbook (FAH) that provide guidance on how a gender transition is to be carried out within the Department of State.  The present document is based on the HRC guidelines, guidelines provided by theOffice of Personnel Management (OPM), and the experience gained in the first workplace gender transition of a direct hire American employee at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest in 2011.


Managing a Gender Transition

If an employee informs you of his or her intention to transition, your support as HRO is critical.  Your actions will impact the outcome of the transition.  Be aware that the employee’s decision is likely to have been carefully considered over months if not many years.  By the time an employee approaches the HRO, he or she likely has already gone through a long process of informing family and close friends.  It is not a sudden, rash, overnight decision.  It is, rather, a life event on a par with birth or marriage.


Initial Conversation

Immediately reassure the employee that the Embassy community will be as supportive as possible.  Assure the employee that he or she is covered by all Department EEO and anti-discrimination provisions.

Make it clear to the employee that your conversation will be held in confidence and inform the employee that you want to discuss how you can assist him or her during their transition.  Ask the employee for his or her suggestions on what you can do to help.  Discuss the expected timeline and anticipated time off required for medical treatment, if known.  Inform the employee that medical leave may be used for all medical care associated with gender transition

Ask the employee if he or she expects to change his or her name.  If yes, ask what name and pronoun the employee will use and when the employee will want you to begin referring to him or her using the new name and/or pronoun.

Discuss and agree upon the procedure for adhering to Post’s dress code and agree on the timing in which the employee will begin his or her transition within the Embassy.  This will probably be the point at which the individual begins to present consistently with his or her gender identity, including change of name, pronouns, dress, grooming, appearance, and restroom use.

Transition Committee

At Embassy Bucharest, it was found advantageous to form a committee to manage issues associated with the employee’s workplace transition.  Known as the Gender Transition Committee (GTC), this group included the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), Management Counselor (MGT), the HRO, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Counselor, Community Liaison Officer (CLO), and representatives from Information Resources Management (IRM), Medical (MED), the Regional Security Office (RSO), Public Diplomacy (PD), and the Consular Section (CONS).  It also included the employee’s supervisor and the post representative from Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA).  Key issues addressed by this committee included —

•  How and when the news of the impending transition would be communicated to the Embassy community, both U.S. staff and Locally Employed Staff (LE Staff).  In Bucharest, the GTC decided to:

 Review and update Post’s anti-discrimination policy to bring it into conformance with the Department’s Statement on Discriminatory and Sexual Harassment.
 Verify that EEO notices posted around the Embassy include gender identity as a protected category.
o  Inform LE Staff in the employee’s department at a departmental all-hands meeting.
 Follow the department announcement immediately with a personal e-mail from the employee to all Embassy staff in both English and Romanian.
 Print a special Farewell / Welcome announcement in the Embassy’s weekly community newsletter.
o  Plan for success with the expectation that there would be no significant push-back from either American or LE Staff.
  The Bucharest GTC decided that if there should be more than expected concern, one or more Transgender 101 brown bag lunch discussion sessions could be scheduled.
  ACCEPT, the Romanian non-governmental organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, offered to assist by sending a trainer to these sessions.
♦  NOTE:  No Transgender 101 sessions were needed for either American or LE Staff in Bucharest.

  Expected plan for use of gender-specific facilities such as restrooms and locker rooms.

o  Insofar as OPM policy on workplace transition calls for immediate unrestricted use of gender-appropriate facilities, the Bucharest GTC had no decision to make on this issue.
o  NOTE:  No one in Bucharest from either the American or LE Staff has complained about the transitioning employee’s change in restroom usage.

 Documentation and name changes.  Pre-transition and immediate post-transition responsibility in this area was divided as follows:

o  Transitioning Employee — Initiate and oversee legal name change in home state.  Manage name and gender change in all personal documents and accounts such as credit cards, bank accounts, driver’s license, insurance, etc.
o  Consular — Process applications for new diplomatic passport, tourist passport, and social security card.
o  RSO — Make new ID badge with new photo and name on the first day the transitioning employee begins coming to work in the new gender presentation.
o  IM — Change name on all computer and other information systems.
o  HR — Change name and gender in Embassy and Department records.  Apply for new Romanian diplomatic ID card.

Post-Transition Transcript and Documentation Changes

The HRO plays an important role following the workplace transition as the process of changing the employee’s name and gender throughout all State Department records and systems continues.

An SF-52 Request for Personnel Action should be initiated by the HRO to effect the name and gender change in most HR systems including GEMS, e-performance, and FSBid.  In the Bucharest experience, the SF-52 did not effect the name change in payroll.  The HRO was forced to correspond directly with payroll in Charleston for several weeks before the change was made properly.  Another system in which the change did not take place automatically was the local Embassy Bucharest software systems for accommodation exchange.

By far the lengthiest part of post-transition processing is the reconstruction of the employee’s personnel folder.  This process is described in Chapter 4 of OPM’s Guide to Personnel Recordkeeping beginning on page 4-5 in the section titled How to Reconstruct a Personnel Folder due to a Change in Gender Identity.  The purpose of building an employee transcript and reconstructing the personnel folder is simple in concept:  to remove any trace of the employee’s former identity in all federal employment records, replacing it retroactively with the new name and gender.

Anne Vonhof, the author of OPM’s Guidance Regarding the Employment of Transgender Individuals in the Federal Workplace elaborates on why these retroactive changes are necessary —

OPM advises that all records in the employee’s OPF, as well as any other records kept by the agency on the employee, be changed to reflect the new name and gender, including all the past ones.  This is to ensure that to the greatest extent possible, the employee’s privacy is protected.  Unfortunately, the mere fact that someone has transitioned, should it become known by other employees or managers, can tend to create a hostile working environment and may even endanger the safety of the employee and the workplace.  We’ve tried to build safeguards into the OPF and other records process for changes, so that only where there is an absolute need to know will the fact of the transition be revealed.  Clearly, older records with a different name and gender clue people in that the employee has transitioned, and can raise very inappropriate questions and gossip. . . .

Performance records must also be changed retroactively to reflect the employee’s new name and gender.  In the case of a direct hire Foreign Service Officer, this should be accomplished prior to the next Employee Evaluation Review (EER) review cycle so that the employee’s gender transition is not disclosed to an EER review board by discordant documents.

The task of creating a transcript of service, retroactively changing employment records, and reconstructing the personnel folder falls primarily on Department HR with assistance from the HRO at post.  In the case of the Bucharest gender transition, Post’s HRO worked cooperatively with the Department’s Deputy Human Resources Officer to accomplish this task.

Lessons Learned

Embassy Bucharest reports several lessons learned from their management of the first workplace gender transition of an American direct hire employee at Post —

  • GLIFAA is an important resource for the HRO.  The GLIFAA post representative in Bucharest proved to be a tremendous source of information and helped educate the HRO and the GTC on gender identity issues and the experience of other federal agencies and departments.
  • The press officer from the PD section should have been brought into the GTC at an earlier stage.  This lesson was learned after a local writer heard of and began writing about the employee’s gender transition.  Although the resulting article was well-researched, well-written, and very complimentary towards U.S. policy on LGBT issues, it could have benefitted from earlier PD involvement.
  • Depending on the host country, the GTC may wish to include a representative from the Political (POL) section.  The EUR/CE desk was concerned that the Government of Romania (GOR) might react negatively to the news of a gender transition at the U.S. Embassy.  For this reason, the POL counselor personally informed contacts on the Americas’ Desk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  As it happened, the GOR was unconcerned and issued a new diplomatic ID without delay.  This may or may not be true in other host countries.
  • Keep the country desk informed. Although the Bucharest GTC was in regular communication with Department HR, the Romania Desk within EUR/CE became aware of the impending transition only shortly before the transition date, thus leading to the concerns described in the preceding bullet.
  • Even in a socially conservative country such as Romania, the LE Staff has been remarkably accepting of an American employee who has undergone gender transition.  We attribute this to two factors.  First, Romanians are much more accepting of diversity when it concerns someone they know personally.  Second, the American employee had a good relationship with LE Staff before her transition.  If anything, the relationship between the American employee and the LE Staff supervised by her has improved.