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Countdown: Why we’re taking a stand to support our transgender staff

On Monday, supermarket chain Countdown announced a new company-wide policy to support its workers who are transgender, and those who are transitioning. Corporate affairs GM James Walker explains what motivated the decision.

Countdown announced to its team this week that it has introduced a Transgender Transitioning Policy. We’ve had numerous messages and emails from people telling us, from inside and outside our business, that this policy will make a difference to them, to a friend or family-member.

As a large company in New Zealand, there can also be cynicism around the things we do. One representative from our union called me on Monday to say she had been asked to do an interview about the Countdown policy, and the producer asked her, “Was it really necessary for Countdown to make an announcement about this?”

There have, of course, been many other questions about the policy, “Why did Countdown do it?”; “Won’t it only apply to one or two people?”; and “What’s in it that you wouldn’t otherwise do?”

Taken together, the questions explain our rationale for making this move. The policy is fundamentally a statement of inclusiveness and support; it brings transgender issues further to the fore in our business. We hope it makes transgender issues easier to talk about.

The same rationale applied to the announcement of our family violence policy last year. As a large employer and well known customer brand, what we do also gets noticed by society. So if we make a move that’s right for the people in our business, we hope that it may encourage others to take a step forward too.

All-gender bathroom, California. Photo: Getty Images

First and foremost, however, our policy was put in place to support the Countdown team. We employ 18,000 people and New Zealand is a diverse place. The people of New Zealand are represented in our stores across the country. Like many other workplaces we have transgender and transitioning colleagues in our business.

We also know that transgender individuals can experience discrimination at work. Research from Harvard Business Review in 2015 shows that transgender individuals are 40 per cent more likely to attempt suicide and 50 per cent more likely to be unemployed or homeless than the general population. Transgender advocates here tell us that depression, suicide and unemployment are serious issues for the transgender community in New Zealand too.

From an employer’s perspective, we don’t want anyone coming to work at Countdown feeling frightened, harassed or isolated. It’s not right. Under those circumstances, people can’t be the best they can be.

Another concern is that when people undertake medical treatment to transition gender, they can feel compelled to do so in secrecy and leave their place of work. They then start their work lives again with a physical gender which matches their identity. Our policy says stay with us; the support is there if you would like it. It also says, come and work for us.

This policy will inevitably come with challenges. There may be people in our business who have not met a transgender person. There may be people who are not familiar with transgender issues. There may be people who do not feel comfortable working with a transgender person, nervous to share a bathroom, choose the wrong pronoun or accidentally say something offensive. However, having this policy creates an open environment in which we can deal with challenges and have conversations.

We want to stand-by our transgender team, and make it easier for people to support them and talk openly about what’s going on, if they want to. We have experienced advisors available through our employee assistance programme, to talk to managers about supporting a team member through transition.

We hope our policy is joined by others, and if any business would like to talk to us about what we’ve done, we would be more than happy to do so.

Our Transgender Transitioning Policy: Our policy promises transitioning team support over correct name and pronoun use, as well as the right to use whichever changing rooms and toilets match their gender identity, at a time that suits them. The policy also offers transitioning team members the right to use any available leave, including sick leave, for medical treatments needed when transitioning. We also work with team on an individual basis if more time is needed.


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