How to Manage a Job Search as a Transgender Candidate

Tips for the challenges transgender job seekers face when searching for work.

Person filing out employment or personal information form

One of the most daunting hurdles for many transgender job seekers is filing out application materials that call for a legal name. 

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Ryan Sallans, LGBTQ-inclusion educator, trainer and author of "Second Son: Transitioning Toward My Destiny, Love and Life," recalls receiving a job offer, only to have it revoked.

"The hiring manager Googled my name, and based on what was found, they changed the job description," he says. "I could have pursued legal action, but I chose not to. The issue is greater than not receiving the job. Filing for legal action would have made the matter public record. Some people don't want to be outed in that way. It's hard for anybody to find employment these days, but job seeking for anybody who is transgender seems to be particularly tricky." 

In the most recent National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 6,450 transgender and gender nonconforming participants reported they experienced unemployment at twice the rate of the general population. The survey, conducted in 2011, also found transgender people were nearly four times more likely to live in poverty. That same year a Williams Institute study estimated that 0.3 percent of American adults, or 700,000 people, are transgender.

Even though the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission classifies mistreatment during the hiring process or in the workplace based on gender identity and expression as sex discrimination – which means it's a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – there aren’t explicit federal laws that protect transgender workers. Many who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth struggle to find work.  

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Here are a few tips to assist with their search:

Find a job fair. One of the biggest hurdles transgender job seekers face is finding a fulfilling job at an inclusive workplace​. Some large cities host lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender​ career fairs, which are one of the best ways to connect with a good company. Job fairs are also an excellent way to diversify your job search, says Clair Farley, ​associate director of economic development for the San Francisco LGBT Center, which runs the nation’s first Transgender Employment Program​. Farley says career fairs “allow you to establish contacts within companies, follow up with those people through LinkedIn, identify roles you’d be interested in, get recommended. It really gives you an edge.”

Use word of mouth. Chat with friends, friends of friends and former colleagues about your career aspirations. Doing so could provide a gateway for a coveted position, and it could also assuage some of the anxiety surrounding the application process. “You can ask them if they foresee any problem with your application, they can help you gauge how the employer feels and could put in a good word for you,” Sallans says.

Study up. Research potential employers before sending your résumé or application. Start with the corporate website, Farley says. “If the employer is inclusive, they typically have a diversity page that spells out their employee policy,” she notes.

Also check the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index, an annual report that scores major businesses according to their practices and policies pertinent to LGBT employees. The top CEI score an employer could receive is 100 percent – this year, Apple Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. were two of the companies to earn top marks. ​ “Even job seekers who aren’t LGBT are asking about CEI scores during interviews,” says Deena Fidas, director of the Workplace Equality Program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “The extent to which a company is proactive in LGBT inclusion is seen as an overall bellwether of how the company treats employees as a whole.”

Farley also suggests you lean on your personal and professional transgender​ network. “They’ll tell you which companies are truly inclusive of trans people in the work they do and benefits they provide, not just inclusive according to the corporate website,” she says. 

Decide how to handle disclosure of your identity. Choosing whether and how to reveal that your gender identity is different from the gender you were assigned at birth is personal, but some application materials will inquire about your legal name. Some transgender job seekers have not changed their legal names, but those who have might run into trouble and confusion if an employer requests ​they submit to a background check that requires paperwork​. “An application is a legal document, and if what you report doesn’t match with what an employer finds, they could let you go," Farley says. She recommends job seekers write the first initial and surname of their legal name on applications. ​“That allows a job seeker to include the information that’s required by law, but not to have to qualify birth gender.”

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Practice a stump speech. Even a well-meaning hiring manager might phrase or ask something inappropriately. “It’s always OK to say, ‘I’m not comfortable answering that question, but I am willing to explain my qualifications for the job,’” Sallans says. “Or if they refer to you by your legal name or an incorrect pronoun, you could quickly explain, ‘Jane is my legal name, but I’d prefer to go by John, and I’m hoping that’s what my employment badge could say.’”

Be choosy with references. It can be tricky to use references you worked with under a different name. “There’s confusion that you have to include your previous employer, or your last three employers, as a reference, but you can create opportunities for new ones,” Farley says, also suggesting that associates made through volunteer work as good alternatives. ​ 

If you do use people who worked with you under a different name, Farley offers these pointers: “It’s all right to tell a previous employer you’re close with, ‘Please use my current name and this pronoun to refer to me.’” ​

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Be a squeaky wheel. If you’re denied employment based on gender identity you could choose to sue, but you have other less expensive options. “It’s much easier to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission than it is to file a lawsuit,” says Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. ​ “Also bring your complaints to the local advocacy organizations, the National Center for Transgender Equality and Lambda Legal [a civil rights nonprofit organization focused on litigation, education and public policy for the LGBT community]. We may be able to help somehow, plus it brings awareness and helps the community as a whole.”