"The times they are a-changin'," as the 1964 Bob Dylan song goes. That's especially true in the workplace where men and women are finding themselves in jobs not traditionally associated with their gender. You've likely noticed more men working as flight attendants, court reporters, administrative assistants and hair stylists. On the other hand, it's becoming more common to see women serving as construction workers, fire fighters and stock traders.
That might seem like old news, yet employees who feel uncomfortable in the workplace because of their gender are far from uncommon. This can be true even in offices or departments that just happen to employ mostly one gender, such as a small accounting firm with one male and three female employees or a marketing department that consisted only of men before the "new woman" was hired. So, how can you make sure your workplace is welcoming for all employees, regardless of gender?
Keep in mind that change is hard for most people. It can be disrupting for employees who've grown used to a certain environment. While it may seem basic, remind your employees that different workers bring diversity to the workplace in terms of work habits, skills, perspectives and resources.
Beginning with the screening and interview process, make sure there's no discrimination against any candidate, especially one applying for a non-traditional position. The interviewer sets the atmosphere for the company, and most candidates are sensitive to the interviewer's cues. It's not difficult to discern whether an interviewee is being discriminated against; in fact, many job-seekers are very vigilant about this issue.
Once you hire a candidate, redouble your efforts to ensure that sexual discrimination or sexual harassment doesn't occur. This can easily be accomplished with sensitivity training for all employees. It's much better to be proactive than reactive in this regard. In other words, create an atmosphere of acceptance before--not after--a problem occurs. This might mean telling male employees that their off-color jokes, while never appropriate in the workplace, are certainly out of bounds when their female colleague joins the company. Or it may mean that women can no longer talk about issues that would be offensive to their male counterparts.
In addition to sensitivity training, you should serve as a model for all employees. Be vigilant about your employees' behaviors to ensure their actions and attitudes are welcoming and appropriate. Letting even one lewd comment go without reprimand can signal that you aren't serious about the rules you've established.
Next, do what you should be doing when any new employee joins the company: Reiterate the mission and goals, restate the proper processes for accomplishing those goals, and continue to build self-esteem while creating a positive esprit de corps.
To be effective, you must be aware of how the new employee is being treated and take swift action if there is even a hint of discrimination or ill-will from other employees. If you haven't established a safe and appropriate working situation, you are exposing yourself to the possibility of a sexual harassment or sexual discrimination suit. These negative situations can be avoided with proactive training, the right attitudes, and constant attention with reinforcement at the highest levels of the organization.