Ben had since adolescence felt uncomfortable in a man’s body, so after much careful thought and counselling had decided to have a sex change. As part of changing her life and preparing socially and emotionally for the operation, she made it know that in future she wished to be called Barbara. This was accepted by her work colleagues as Barbara was a popular and longstanding member of the team. Other people in the office were less accepting, unkind comments and hurtful remarks were made behind her back. These people acknowledged she could call herself what she wanted but were unhappy when Barbara started wearing a dress to work and drew the line at Barbara’s decision to use the female toilets.

Management came up with a compromise and suggested Barbara use the disabled toilets as these were unisex. Barbara was unhappy with this suggestion as she said she wasn’t disabled and understandably she didn’t want to use the men’s toilets. Under protest she used the disabled toilets but not long after she resigned saying she did not feel management had supported her and had colluded with some staff’s discriminatory behaviour. She initiated proceedings to take the trust to an industrial tribunal claiming constructive dismissal and stating that she had been forced out of her job by the failure of management to address the prejudices of some staff.

In the organisation, views were divided. Some managers and staff felt that Barbara had herself been insensitive to the feelings of others and been inflexible over what they thought was a reasonable compromise. Others within the trust felt that this whole episode exposed the shallowness of management’s commitment to equal opportunities and human rights. They felt whether the issues were race, gender or sexuality, managers said the right thing but failed to challenge inappropriate behaviour or back up the trust’s polices with strong actions to support the individual and confront staff.

HR advised a settlement prior to tribunal and a revision of polices to specifically include transsexuals. Legal did the deal. No one was happy

Blair McPherson was until recently a senior manager in a large local authority and is author of An Elephant in the Room, an equality and diversity training manual.