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California DFEH Announces Guidance to Employers Regarding Transgender Rights in the Workplace

By Anne Cherry Barnett

Individuals who identify as transgender are protected under California’s Fair Employment & Housing Act (Cal. Govt. Code §12940)(“FEHA”).  FEHA protection was extended in 2012 to include gender identity and gender expression categories, and defines “gender expression” to mean a “person’s gender-related appearance and behavior whether or not stereotypically associated with the person’s assigned sex at birth.”  Transgender worker rights have received increased attention in recent months as employers attempt to put into place compliant procedures that are sensitive to transgender workers.   

On February 17, 2016, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) issued guidelines on transgender rights in the workplace.  As this cutting edge area of law continues to develop, employers would be wise to follow the DFEH common sense recommendations which are summarized below:

Do Not Ask Discriminatory Questions

Finding the right employee can be a challenge for employers.   Interviews of prospective candidates can provide helpful insight as to whether the particular candidate is right for the position.  Employers may ask about an employee’s employment history, and may still ask for personal references and other non-discriminatory questions of prospective employees.  However, an employer should not ask questions designed to detect a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  The following questions have been identified by the DFEH as off-limits: 

  • Do not ask about marital status, spouse’s name or relation of household members to one another; and
  • Do not ask questions about a person’s body or whether they plan to have surgery because the information is generally prohibited by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).  

Apply Dress Codes and Grooming Standards Equally

The DFEH reminds employers that California law explicitly prohibits an employer from denying an employee the right to dress in a manner suitable for that employee’s gender identity.  Any employer who requires a dress code must enforce it in a non-discriminatory manner.  For example, a transgender man must be allowed to dress in the same manner as a non-transgender man.  Additionally, transgender persons should be treated equally as are non-transgender persons.

Employee Locker Rooms/Restrooms

According to the DFEH, employees in California have the right to use a restroom or locker room that corresponds to the employee’s gender identity, regardless of the employee’s assigned sex at birth.  Where possible, employers should provide an easily accessible unisex single stall bathroom for use by any employee who desires increased privacy.  This can be used by a transgender employee or a non-transgender employee who does not want to share a restroom or locker room with a transgender co-worker.   

Summary

It is important to note that FEHA protects transgender employees and those employees who may not be transgender, but may not comport with traditional or stereotypical gender roles. 

The DFEH’s guidance reminds California employers that a transgender person does not need to have sex reassignment surgery, or complete any particular step in a gender transition to be protected by the law.  An employer may not condition its treatment or accommodation of a transitioning employee on completion of a particular step in the transition. 

Ultimately, while not the binding authority, the DFEH’s message is clear—employers should avoid discriminatory conduct, apply procedures consistently, and follow transgender employee’s lead with respect to their gender identity and expression.  The DFEH guidelines are consistent with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretation that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Employers should continue to monitor PolsinelliAtWork.com and the DFEH website for updates, and to consult with an experienced labor and employment attorney for further guidance in complying with these cutting-edge issues.