Supporting Your Transgender and Nonbinary Staff
by Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., LPCC, CST

According to a 2016 study conducted by the Williams Institute, approximately 1.4 million transgender adults are living in the United States. Since this study was done several years ago, by phone, and only includes people over 18 years old, we know that the true number of individuals is higher.

You may have transgender and nonbinary staff working for you or have in the past, even though you aren’t aware of it. There will be a continued increase in people coming out as their authentic selves with continued education, visibility in the media and recognition of protection against discrimination due to gender identity.

As a manager, you must have the knowledge to work with your transgender and nonbinary staff successfully. Here are a few questions to consider.

  • Do you ever feel a lack of confidence in your managerial skills when working with your transgender and nonbinary staff?
  • Do you wonder how you will handle a situation that may arise with a guest regarding your transgender and nonbinary staff?
  • Do you have the cultural competency skills to work with transgender and nonbinary staff?

These are a few of the questions that are most often voiced by the spa professionals I work with. Many managers, just like you, are seeking education and training about gender identity because you know the needs you face in the spa setting. In this article, I’ll cover terminology that will help you better manage staff, focusing on occupational qualifications with dignity and the importance of support.


There are many terms within the LGBTQIA+ community and, as with all language, it continues to evolve. As you better understand the terminology, it will help you relate and connect with your staff, which in turn shows them that they have your support. Let’s start with the differences in identities by exploring common terms that will help you better understand yourself and your staff.

  1. Cisgender: someone who identifies with the sex they are assigned at birth. This is someone who is not transgender or nonbinary.
  2. Transgender: encompassing term that covers many gender identities which are different from the sex assigned at birth. For example, a transgender female is someone who was assigned male at birth, but their sense of self and identity is female, and a transgender male is someone who was assigned female at birth, but their sense of self and identity is male.
  3. Nonbinary: someone whose identity is other than male/female; “nonbinary” may be used as an adjective to describe their sense of self. While some nonbinary individuals may identify as transgender, others do not.

Through understanding these differences, it’s common to experience prejudice, bias and assumption. However, as a manager, it’s crucial that that you don’t let these affect your work or the workplace environment, regardless of how you feel or think about gender identity. Your staff deserves to work in a setting that doesn’t discriminate or make them feel uncomfortable for being themselves.

Focusing on Occupational Qualifications with Dignity

Whether addressing possible guest complaints or one team member having an issue with another, it is crucial to manage from a place of dignity. One of the most critical points to remember in managing any team is to focus on each team member’s occupational qualifications: the required duties to perform the job you hired the staff for. This is necessary in order to manage the many different needs of both guests and staff.

For example, United Parcel Service (UPS) has an occupational qualification that one must be able to lift a specific amount of weight. Your spa may have particular occupational qualifications that are required for an individual to work in certain positions—for a massage therapist, the qualification is the ability and skill to give a massage. This will be the basis to support any issue that arises from a guest or employee.

Guest complaints are an issue for some of my clients. For example, suppose that a guest is assigned to a team member who the guest assumes is a transgender female. The guest leaves the treatment room and complains to the greeting attendant. You step in to speak with the guest and hear their complaint. The guest says that they don’t want this particular staff member to work on them. They also are using derogatory words to describe the staff member.

In this situation, what would you do? You have a guest loudly complaining and a staff member who is upset with how they were treated. It’s important to remember to focus on occupational qualifications with dignity and to allow it to lead you to the right course of action:

  1. Listen to the guest’s complaint in a private area, then ask if they would like another staff member to provide the treatment. Tell the guest that your spa doesn’t discriminate against any guest or employee based on gender identity, gender expression or sexual identity. Explain that the staff member has the qualifications required to provide the service to the guest, and that their gender or sexual identity has no bearing on their ability to do so.
  2. Next, meet with your staff member to discuss the situation. Diligently listen to their experience. Use reflective listening to show that you are hearing them. Most importantly, remind them that you and your team support them and appreciate their hard work. This is a great time to point out your staff’s strengths. You are showing dignity and respect to your staff by taking the time to show your support.

The Importance of Support

Regardless of your personal beliefs, values or bias, your job as a manager is to ensure that your spa runs seamlessly. This starts and ends with the team you build. Human capital is the most important and valuable asset to your business.

If you don’t have talented, caring and hard-working staff, you won’t succeed in your business goals. When it comes to transgender and nonbinary employees, you have the opportunity to give them the support that they may have never thought possible in a work environment. As you treat these individuals with dignity and respect, you allow them the opportunity to develop into the best employees you’ve ever had.

Approaching a Staff Complaint

The customer is always right, but not when it comes to discrimination. Here are a few tips for dealing with a complaint:

  • Move the guest to a private area.
  • Use reflective listening to show the guest they are being heard.
  • Apologize for any problems the guest may have experienced.
  • Offer other staff for the client to work with.
  • Share with the client that your organization doesn’t discriminate against any clients or employees based on gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or ethnicity.
  • Meet with the staff member and let them know they are supported in their job.
  • Provide annual training to all staff on diversity within the workplace, which includes client and employee support.

Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., is a clinical sexologist, psychotherapist, speaker, author and consultant. She regularly advises spas and healthcare providers on best practices for caring for LGBTQIA+ clients. Learn more about Dr. Overstreet at kristieoverstreet.com.