Diverse business people human resources silhouettes follow a team leader

Meetings at Symantec’s Springfield campus tend to revolve around technical issues, so when Cass Averill asked his boss for a sit down six years ago, the manager assumed they’d be talking about systems or software.

“I’m transgender,” Averill said. “Do you know what that means?”

Matt Barton didn’t know any other transgender people. He was a new manager and unsure what to do next, besides try to protect his employee.

He called human resources, figuring someone in the 20,000-person multinational Fortune 500 company would know.

They didn’t.

Oregon law has long prohibited employers from firing workers because of their gender identity, but that protection offered little practical guidance for managers. So Averill and Barton found themselves in the awkward position of making up a corporate policy as they went: Averill would use a new name, new pronoun and new bathroom. How would Symantec bosses, responsible for both creating an effective organization and protecting the rights of individual employees, respond?

Six years later, more and more companies nationwide face similar questions.

Many large corporations have already answered it: More than 400 U.S. corporations, including Nike and Intel, already offer transgender-inclusive health care policies, and nearly 300 have gender-transition guidelines in place, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

But the thousands of companies that haven’t must adapt soon, experts say, or risk discrimination lawsuits. Symantec’s experience, then and now, offers important lessons.

Averill, 33, grew up in Reedsport and fell in love with computers when he saw a Commodore 64 at 8.

He had already begun to suspect he was transgender when he began working at Symantec in 2006, but he wasn’t ready to come out. Nationwide, 47 percent of transgender people say they have experienced “extreme adverse reactions” in the workplace, according to a 2011 National Center for Transgender Equality study. That means they’ve been fired or denied interviews and promotions.

Many transgender people start over somewhere else with a new name and new pronouns when they transition to a different gender. But Symantec was Averill’s dream job.

Though companies have integrated other marginalized groups, including people of color, women and gays and lesbians, into the workforce before, none presented quite the same challenges. Gay employees, for instance, could choose not to come out.

“You just can’t transition from one sex to the other without people noticing,” said Janis Walworth, a Bellingham-based consultant for companies with transgender employees. “Once you’ve established your relationship with somebody else, if they change, you have to change. Your interaction changes.”

Averill had gone by “Cass” socially for years, but the name on his email and other official documents would change. His face and voice would change, too, as he began taking testosterone. Co-workers would have to call him he — not she, as they had done for two and a half years. Eventually, Averill would use the men’s restroom.

After that first meeting, Barton and Averill agreed to do some research. Averill found an LGBT professionals group on Yahoo: “Has anyone out there done this before?” he wrote.

Two transgender women from the University of California Davis told Averill they had come out via email to their co-workers.

Barton and Averill began working on a draft of their own letter with higher-up managers, human resource representatives and company lawyers. They also began investigating how Averill could change the name on his email account, software logins and identification badge. There was precedent for that, they learned: Women often asked to make the same change when they married.

Six months after Averill and Barton’s first meeting, 300 employees who worked directly with Averill received an email from Barton’s boss, senior manager Dennis Chong.

“One of our staff members will be undergoing a major change in their life,” it began. “While this change is of a personal nature, it is also one that may be surprising to many of you, and may even be uncomfortable to some. … Cass will be taking a major step in a gender transition where he will fully assume his life’s role as a man.”

Questions could go to Averill, Barton or human resources, the letter explained — “unless, of course, the question is too personal.” Symantec hired counselors to talk with employees who had concerns.

Some co-workers came to hug Averill as soon as they received the email. Averill’s teammates corrected co-workers who called him “she.”

“Everyone has that movie reel in their head of all times past they’ve interacted with you,” Averill said. “If that movie reel is one name and gender, it’s going to take a while to transition to a different name and gender.”

The biggest hurdle was the bathroom. Some companies, including Symantec, have policies that allow employees to use whatever restroom corresponds with their gender identity. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration urged all employers to adopt similar policies or risk creating unsafe spaces for transgender employees.

Initially, Averill continued using the women’s restroom. As he began to grow facial hair and his voice deepened, co-workers began asking when he would switch.

Averill thought he would begin using the men’s room when he could fully pass as male. He wasn’t sure when that would be, so he stopped using the bathroom all together at work.

Then, a male co-worker offered to protect him.

“He said, `If you’d like to have a buddy, somebody to just make sure you’re safe, I’ll be that guy,” Averill said.

Eventually, the questions subsided. Barton moved on to a job at the Eugene Water & Electric Board. Averill became just another nerdy guy who keeps toys and cartoon drawings in his cubicle.

Neither man wrote down what they had done to help Averill transition. Neither thought Symantec would need a guide for how to handle the process in the future.

“I was young and ignorant,” Barton said.

Earlier this year, a Symantec remote product specialist called Averill, now a training czar for the company’s Endpoint Protection antivirus software. The employee wanted to transition to male and had searched for Symantec’s policy on the process. He found nothing.

So Averill started from scratch again.

The second employee’s email went out earlier this summer. Averill began working on an official policy, a checklist HR workers can post on Symantec’s internal website.

“Most places work off of tribal knowledge, what’s happened before, and they send you to those people for reference,” Averill said. “Someone else will transition someday. If you require them to recreate the wheel, it’s going to be a big headache for everyone.”