Virtual drag a thorny issue for employers

In recent years, companies have begun using virtual worlds such as Second Life, OpenSim, Forterra and Qwaq to hold virtual meetings — and employees have begun using avatars, or cartoonish animated online characters, to represent themselves in these meetings. Some companies and employees pick avatars that reflect their real identities — but other avatars are fantastical, whimsical, or gender-bending.

As virtual worlds become serious business, however, corporate dress codes are being extended to the virtual worlds in a variety of ways — some more controversial than others.

For example, in many jurisdictions, a company may not discriminate against employees who are in the process of changing their gender, or who have already done so. The laws do not cover casual crossdressing by non-transgender employees, however.

As a result, companies are allowed to insist that employees have avatars that reflect their offline identities, or to comply with the same dress code that is in place for physical workplaces. However, many companies, including IBM, are taking a more progressive approach and allowing employees more flexibility with how they express themselves, including changing genders in an online environment.


Harper Jean Tobin, policy counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality
Harper Jean Tobin, policy counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality

Casual crossdressers who are not undergoing gender transition are not currently protected by any state laws, said Harper Jean Tobin, policy counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality. “Nor do I know of any court cases about it.”

In addition, she said, an employer is allowed to specify a dress code for business-related functions – and can extend this to virtual environments.
“A company could apply some analog of the workplace dress code to online places where you’re essentially at work,” she said. “For example, you can’t dress as a pirate, or show up in your avatar in a bikini to a meeting.”

Switching back and forth from a male to a female appearance might be covered by such dress codes.
A company can require that employees present themselves in a consistent and professional manner while at work and make clear who they are, she said, but can also decide to be flexible on this issue.

“There are some companies who have just decided that it is good business practice to be accommodating to a person’s gender expression even if they’re not consistent all the time,” she said.

According to Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, virtual crossdressing at work has not been considered in any legal or legislative way, though companies can certainly dictate the format of the employees’ email addresses – requiring real names, for example.


And transgender employees should certainly be allowed to express their new gender online, she said.

“If other women are permitted to be women online, then transgender women should be permitted to be women online,” she said. “But if someone is not transgender – maybe not.”

The key is consistency, she said, applying the same rules for both transgender people and for non-transgender people.

Meanwhile, she said, casual crossdressing at in physical work places by non-transgender employees is not an issue. “It’s not a problem that comes up. It doesn’t happen.”

It might be that employees don’t take virtual environments as seriously as they do their physical work environments.

“People are still getting used to the idea that there is a real aspect of virtual spaces,” she said. “When you’re engaging in a work experience in a virtual space, you’re still in the workplace. People are still wrapping their heads around what’s appropriate.”

Today, 12 states and over 100 cities, including most large cities, have laws on the books prohibiting workplace discrimination against transgender individuals, she said.

“Almost exactly 40 percent of the population lives in jurisdictions with gender identity protections,” said Keisling. In addition, there is currently a bill up before congress – the Employment Non-Discrimination Act – that is expected to be approved and signed into law.

It makes sense for companies to embrace best practices in this area, whether or not they have employees in jurisdictions that already have these laws on the books.

But an employee filing a grievance would have to demonstrate that they have been discriminated against because of their status as a transgendered person or because of their gender identity. For example, if an employee faces discrimination for dressing as a woman outside of work, on personal time, “that might be considered gender identity discrimination.”

“But the employer might have an expectation that someone be consistent in how they express their gender identity in the workplace,” she said. “And if someone is born male and presents as male in the work place, they can expect them to be consistent with that, regardless of what they do in their private life.”


Dan Parks at Virtualis Convention Center
Dan Parks at Virtualis Convention and Learning Center

Dan Parks, president and creative director of Corporate Planners Unlimited, Inc., a corporate events and travel company, has also been offering virtual events services for the past year.

Parks works with about twenty people in his company’s Virtualis convention center in Second Life. Those who are company employees are dressed in a company uniform – black pants and white shirt with the corporate logo, of the same gender as the actual employee. And their user names are composed of their real names, combined with the company name. None have asked to change their genders.

“But if one of my employees was a woman, and asked to have a man avatar in Second Life, I wouldn’t have a problem with that,” he said. “Or if a man wanted to be a woman.”

However, some contract staff have already come to work as the opposite gender.

“One lady who worked for me last year, putting together a tour vehicle, was a man who had a woman’s avatar,” he said. “It may have even been a transgendered person – I didn’t ask.”

This contractor wore very provocative clothing, he added, but had no contact with the company’s customers.

If an employee with customer contact came to him and asked to change their online gender, Parks said, he wouldn’t have a problem with it, “as long as he represented himself professionally and kept my business.”

But if customers, complained, Parks added, it would be a different story. “If this turned into something that my clients responded to, said ‘I’m uncomfortable with this,’ I would go with whatever my clients wanted,” he said.

Ultimately, an employee working for a company is there to protect the company brand, he said.

Corporate Planners also creates avatars for clients. For example, when organizing a conference, he and his staffers will create avatars for everyone who plans to attend with a conservative business appearance. If the customer requests custom avatars they can be built using actual photos of the people. Or the avatars can be customized to a limited degree – with just hair color and hair length, for example, he said. So far, nobody has asked for different genders.

But as business in the virtual worlds continues to grow, the gender and identity boundaries are only going to be pushed further.

“It’s going to get crazy,” Parks said.


“Bruce” — not his real name – has been dressing as a woman in Second Life for over five years. His female avatar is a bubbly, buxom blonde with many friends – and a better track record in virtual sales than his usual glum male self.

He’s been spending about half his online time in female form, he said, starting with a job in which he was selling products to role playing customers. His boss was a woman he knew in real life who was running the virtual store, and was aware of his gender-bending – in fact, he was logging in as her female avatar when he was on the sales floor. This eventually expanded into a full-fledged second identity as female.

Bruce didn’t want to be quoted under his real name, since his friends and acquaintances – both offline or in Second Life – don’t know that he has a second identity as a woman.

Bruce doesn’t consider himself a transgender individual. “I like my real life gender,” he said. “And as far as I know I’m not gay or in denial.”

But being a woman online has some advantages, he said. “Everyone loves my alter ego,” he said. “Including me. The fictional character is more beloved than I could ever dream of. It’s a powerful experience when everyone is glad to see her coming. Playing a chick is making me more successful at everything – including relating to women.”

He recently applied for an internship in his female persona – then decided to come out as a man.

“It’s important with co-workers not to blow smoke,” he said. “It never turns out well.”

In the future, he said, he would use his realistic male avatar when applying for jobs – unless the potential employer was a fan of the female character.

His advice for other job seekers: “Be honest.”


IBM is often considered to be one of the most conservative organizations out there, but in fact it is quite progressive when it comes to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights issues. In 1984, IBM was among the first major companies to add sexual orientation to its U.S.non-discrimination policy. There is an active GLBT business community, and, since 2002, IBM’s corporate guidelines prohibit discrimination based on “gender identity or expression.”

It’s not just a political statement – in this case, a progressive approach is also good for business. In a white paper addressed to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender customers, the company wrote: “We know that you prefer establishing relationships with vendors that give back to the GLBT community. Vendors that provide a level playing field in their workplaces for GLBT employees. And have openly GLBT staff working with customers.”

That inclusiveness extends to the virtual worlds as well, where employees routinely show up for staff events – and even meetings with customers – in avatars of a different gender.

IBM senior architect Peter Finn attended a virtual meeting Friday in which two people, out of thirty, had opposite gender avatars.

“We have lots of men at IBM who dress as women in-world when they are with customers,” he said – and IBM is fully supportive of these employees. “We are proud of them,” he said.

Finn also added that other countries may have more inclusive human rights laws, protecting both transgender individuals and crossdressers from discrimination.

Craig Becker
Craig Becker a.k.a. Jessica Qin

One high-profile cross-dressing IBM employee is Craig Becker, the global architect for IBM’s Emerging 3D Internet and Virtual Business Enterprise Business Unit. In Second Life, he appears as Jessica Qin, a pale blonde with dramatic makeup. Becker led the design and construction of IBM’s public facilities in SecondLife. In real life, however, he is a happy married father of two children.

He makes public appearances and makes no secret of the fact that he’s a woman online – and a man in real life.

That doesn’t mean that IBM has an “anything goes” policy for virtual worlds.

According to IBM’s Virtual World Guidelines, avatars should “make the right impression.”

“In general, your digital persona’s appearance is up to you,” says the company. “When you are using your avatar or persona in association with IBM, however, your judgment in these matters should be shaped by the same general guidelines that apply to IBMers in physical environments … that your appearance be appropriate to the context of your activities. You need to be especially sensitive to the appropriateness of your avatar or persona’s appearance when you are meeting with IBM clients or conducting IBM business.”

IBM suggestions that employees may need to draw a line between business-related and personal activities.

“Management may require or you may decide it is necessary to have a separate avatar to conduct IBM business,” the guidelines say. “If you are engaged primarily for personal uses, consider using a different avatar.”

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Maria Korolov