Box Ticking and Other Problems: When Nonbinary Teens Get Jobs

My child has their very first job this summer. They were hired to be a junior counselor at an art day camp. Watching your child get their first job is a rite of passage and also a very proud moment for any parent. But if your kid is nonbinary, they will encounter a hiring process fraught with inclusion gaps. And advocating for them while also helping them to manage expectations is like walking a tightrope. As a parent, there are certain conventions that you want to prepare your child to navigate because being able to take part in society sometimes requires acting, well, conventionally. Job seeking is a good example of an arena where there are a lot of conventions, and being able to function within them may make the difference between being hired or not. So how is a parent to advise their young person coming up against places in the recruitment protocol that negate their identity?

My child applied for junior counselor positions at two different camps. One was an art camp and the other was a municipal camp in our area. They had attended both camps in the past. At the municipal camp, the application was, I presume, the same application used by all city job applicants—not just teens applying for temporary summer employment through the parks department. One question required applicants to choose a sex, and the only options were male and female. Reluctantly, they selected an option, but they were left with a bad impression. And, when they were invited to interview, they asked their father and me if it would be acceptable—during the interview—to point out the need to improve the inclusivity of the application process. We were not entirely sure how to advise them about this. On the one hand, we wanted to encourage our child to advocate for themselves, and we felt that their feedback would be important for the employer to hear. On the other hand, we wanted them to understand that job interviews—particularly initial interviews—are mostly about employers sizing up candidates to see if they meet qualifications, seem reliable and authentic, would make a good hire, etc. The time for probing questions from applicants is usually later in the process, once the employer has decided to make an offer. After some discussion, we cautioned them to wait till the end of the interview, when applicants are typically asked if they have any questions. This, we told them, would be the best time to bring it up. 

In their first interview with the municipal camp, they did raise the issue of inclusivity with the application form, and the interviewers groaned with empathy and expressed their own frustration with the matter. They explained that the application software was difficult to customize, and that park employees were at the mercy of higher ups to lobby for that type of change in the system. While the response was relatable and made my teen feel heard and appreciated, they ultimately pulled their application from consideration as soon as they received an offer from the art camp. 

The art camp—where my kid eventually accepted a position—is a private camp, operated as a 501c3. The application for this camp was designed to be gender inclusive, and my child was relieved to be able to select “nonbinary” from the menu of options realted to gender identity. There were many things about that camp that ultimately felt like a better fit—particularly the fact that it was an arts-focused camp. But the application process gave them a sense, from the get go, that they belonged. 

Having secured the position, I wish I could say that it was smooth sailing. Once hired, however, the next step was to get set up for payroll, ie, create an account with ADP. What for most teens would be nothing more than a clerical task brought my child to the brink when—having come to trust this camp as inclusive—they were confronted with the ADP registration. The form forced them to select a binary sex and also an honorific—Mr., Ms., Dr., and The Hon. were options, but the gender-neutral Mx. was not. This brought on anxiety and anger to such an extent that It was paralyzing. Having never been hired before, they did not understand that the camp did not necessarily have much say in how the payroll process was administered by ADP. And following the inclusive and personalized application, the inapt onboarding was a letdown. Their father and I tried to reassure them that ADP did not represent the camp, and that they should try not to let this bureaucratic and clunky (albeit required) process get in the way of their understanding that the camp would be a welcoming place to work. They wanted to believe us, but I could tell that they were neither persuaded nor comforted by our line of reasoning.

Eventually we were able to help them pick up the pieces and resume the task, but it felt crappy—even to us, the adults. As for my kiddo, what choice did they have but to grit their teeth and bear it? For trans people, even children, the only option in many circumstances is to endure. Sometimes the inadequacy of the world we live in really stands out, and this was one of those times. On the other hand, it was a conundrum and—given the disappointing realities of data gathering for employment purposes—hard to imagine how this scenario might have played out in a better way.

ADP’s philosophy states that “each person counts. Each client and each associate. Every deed and every contact between ourselves and our clients. We respect and embrace the diversity of our associates, clients and business partners.” But though they state this and offer advice to employers about how to support transgender rights in the workplace, the process of creating an ADP employee account—at least for my child—triggered dysphoria and panic—which is a far cry from feeling “respected” and “embraced.” While this does seem to indicate a shortfall on the part of ADP, the experience reveals broad issues regarding inclusivity and employment data collection in our country. 

One major hurdle is that, while many states (beginning with Oregon in 2017) allow residents to select a gender-neutral designation, typically “X,” on their state-issued driver’s licenses and/or birth certificates, individuals are not permitted to designate themselves as nonbinary, or X, on Federal identification documents, including social security cards, residence permits, and the like. There are signs of shift, with the ACLU pressuring Biden to issue an executive order to create a nonbinary gender marker option on all Federal IDs. And the State Department announced last month that applicants for US Passports will soon have the option to select a gender marker that isn’t male or female. But the timing for when this will be available has not been announced.

I spoke to a friend of mine who also happens to be an HR professional. She said the topic of making hiring more inclusive is very complicated, and that she often struggles to make customizations to hiring management platforms (like ADP) to allow for nonbinary gender identity, pronouns, and the like. The linchpin of the issue is the social security card because, although gender is not included on the cards themselves, the Social Security Administration (SSA) keeps binary gender data on all individuals with social security numbers. And whatever gender and other information they have in their system must match what employers use to generate W-2 forms. So until the SSA is made to allow applicants to select a nonbinary gender when setting up or revising their social security record, employers will be stuck—at least when it comes to payroll—with the binary gender norm.

My friend brought up another problem, which is mandated government reporting, specifically restrictions in the Affirmative Action Program (AAP) EEO-1 Report. EEO-1 is an annual data collection report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which helps facilitate compliance with Federal laws prohibiting job discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age, equal pay, disability or genetic information. All private sector employers with 100 or more employees, as well as some other employers, are required to submit demographic data about their workers. But the form allows only binary sex categories. There is an awkward workaround—employers may enter nonbinary gender in a comment field of the form. The EEOC is under pressure to update the form to include a bonafide nonbinary option. After the Supreme Court’s Bostock v. Clayton County decision in June 2020, it was expected that they would do so, because the case established that discrimination against gender equates with discrimination against sex, in that “the first cannot happen without the second.” In the wake of this landmark case, it is ironic that the agency working to ensure compliance with laws regarding employment discrimination is delinquent in updating its form to comply with the law of land. But over a year has passed since Bostock v. Clayton was decided, and—as far as I can tell—they have done nothing to get with the program.

Yet another barrier described by my friend, the HR pro, involves benefits administration. Some health insurers, for example, require employers to batch all employees into binary sex categories in order to estimate the cost of coverage (since an individual’s born sex has implications for their anticipated medical needs). My child works seasonally, and so is not eligible for health benefits through their employer. But according to a 2021 study by the Williams Institute, an estimated 1.2 million American adults identify as non-binary, and as that number increases, inclusivity in payroll, reporting, and benefits administration is something more employers will be faced with. So let’s hope that employment systems continue to improve and that the federal government makes it possible for nonbinary individuals to have documentation and identification that matches their identity.

In the meantime, I think it is important for employers to be aware that the hoops required of trans applicants and new hires have the potential to cause real harm. Being selected for an interview, or hired for a job, is usually something that makes a person feel good about themselves. But getting caught in hiring processes that invalidate nonbinary identity strips away good feelings like dignity and self-esteem. And the damage wrought on these vulnerable individuals ripples outward, impacting their satisfaction with the hiring process, bleeding into their feelings about the employer, and possibly leaving lasting impressions about how they see themselves in the working world. If our kids’ first jobs are meant to provide positive experiences—to set them up for success as adults in the workforce—then trans kids should not be forced to navigate these untenable and triggering processes without a lot of handholding. Employers may not be able to customize every aspect of the process, particularly the outsourced parts, but they can do a better job of helping marginalized groups to get through these processes with as much sympathy and workaround as possible. This gets back to the question I asked earlier—what could have made my child’s encounter with payroll procedures at their first job less upsetting? 

One solution I can imagine would be if employers of teens, young adults, and others new to the job market took a more hands-on approach to introducing these procedures to their trans employees. For example, instead of just sending a link to the payroll software with login instructions, it would have been helpful if the camp had given my child a head’s up about what to expect regarding binary gender in the payroll registration process. A little context and compassion might have made my child feel less negated, and certainly would have lessened the shock. I believe it is the responsibility of employers to personally connect with trans employees, especially teens, to mentor them through the systems and procedures so as to minimize the damage.

After the ADP incident, we encouraged our kiddo to reach out to their supervisor to describe the problems they encountered with the payroll process. I have also been in touch with the HR person at the camp, to see if there is any customization that can be made to the ADP form. Perhaps there is something that could be done on the employer end to make either the gender identity or the honorific options more inclusive for nonbinary employees. But until the Social Security Administration application provides a nonbinary gender option, employers’ options will be limited. On the day this post was published, Biden fired the head of the SSD, who was a Trump appointee. Perhaps that will help get things moving! As it stands, the development regarding a nonbinary gender option on US passports is certainly great news, and helps build a stronger case for gender consistency across federal documentation and IDs

My kid did an excellent job advocating for themself during their job hunt and hire. And despite the gender hurdles, they felt heard by both employers when they expressed misgivings. But I can’t help but resent that their first job hunt had so many trouble spots. Sending your child out into the world of work is such a mix of emotions—reveling in their capable flight whilst hovering as they encounter realms beyond the tip of your wing. I am grateful for the many uplifting experiences they are having with campers and staff (some of them also nonbinary). And it is unquestionable that they are making excellent contributions to the camp community and learning a lot. But the employment landscape needs some serious adjustment so that—come future summers—nonbinary teens hunting jobs won’t have to compromise their identity in order to enter the workplace.

Post image by lopezjoshua839 from Pixabay.

1 thought on “Box Ticking and Other Problems: When Nonbinary Teens Get Jobs”

  1. Thank you so much for all of this information. Reading your posts makes me realize that it is a long, slow, complex process to even start to understand what it means to be nonbinary. It must feel like a mine field just going out your door and encountering people and systems that clearly don’t get it. Your writing is a great service.


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