Acting Courageously Against Injustice Benefits Transgender Employees

diversity in workplace

It takes courage to stand up against injustice and make social change. Although workplaces have made strides towards social equity for all, there is still much work to be done in order to make the workplace a truly inclusive environment where all individuals feel valued for who they are. Transgender individuals are one minority group who still face high rates of prejudice and mistreatment in and outside of work.

When considering workplace injustices faced by transgender employees, such as transphobic comments or non-inclusive policies, people often think about how transgender employees must be courageous and stand up for themselves. However, it is also critical to consider how majority group “allies” can use courage to speak out against such injustices and voice their support for their transgender colleagues, despite the associated personal risks (e.g., risking job security or work relationships). Furthermore, little is known about how witnessing acts of courage by colleagues may impact transgender employees.


New research (Thoroughgood, Sawyer, & Webster, 2020) examines how cisgender employees (employees whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex) may engage in acts of oppositional courage in support of transgender employees, and how these acts affect their transgender colleagues’ job attitudes and wellbeing. Oppositional courage means standing up against organizational leaders or the status quo when injustice toward a minority group member is occurring, despite risks for the individual who is speaking out.

The authors conducted four studies in which they: (1) interviewed transgender employees about their experiences of witnessing oppositional courage, (2) examined how exposure to hypothetical acts of oppositional courage influences “organization-based self-esteem” (a measure of one’s value as an organizational member), (3) developed a measure of oppositional courage, and (4) determined how witnessing oppositional courage at work influences transgender individuals’ job satisfaction and emotional exhaustion, which are central components of workplace burnout.

The findings revealed that when transgender employees perceive acts of oppositional courage by their cisgender colleagues, they experience a greater sense of value at work. This is because observing acts of oppositional courage can serve as an important symbolic message to transgender employees that affirms their value as members of the organization. This increased organization-based self-esteem is in turn associated with higher job satisfaction and lower emotional exhaustion. However, these results only held for transgender employees whose identity as a transgender individual is central to their core sense of self.


This research suggests that the burden of creating a more trans-inclusive workplace need not lie on transgender employees alone. Rather, cisgender colleagues who act courageously in opposition to workplace inequities can help make work a more positive experience for their transgender colleagues as well. Specifically, this courage helps boost their transgender colleagues’ organization-based self-esteem and job satisfaction, while decreasing their emotional exhaustion.

Organizations should find ways to inspire acts of oppositional courage and encourage employees to speak out against injustice. The researchers suggest that diversity training should include information that equips employees with knowledge, strategies, and confidence to create more trans-inclusive workplaces. Importantly, the authors note that whenever possible, employees should check with their transgender colleagues before engaging in acts of oppositional courage in order to learn how they prefer such situations to be handled, and to not limit their agency to stand up for themselves.

Thoroughgood, C. N., Sawyer, K. B., & Webster, J. R. (2020). Because you’re worth the risks: Acts of oppositional courage as symbolic messages of relational value to transgender employees. Journal of Applied Psychology, advance online publication.