Returning to work after a long vacation can be a shock, but when some top brass at the Columbus marketing company Resource came back from the beach last year, a true surprise was in store.

Returning to work after a long vacation can be a shock, but when some top brass at the Columbus marketing company Resource came back from the beach last year, a true surprise was in store.

Shelly Moss, a creative director at the company, had some big news for HR director Jamie Barcelona and company founder Nancy Kramer: Moss is transgender and was transitioning into a man who thereafter would use the first name Decker.

"My initial reaction was, 'Wow! This is a day I thought I'd never have,'" Barcelona said. " Then you instantly go into, 'How am I going to handle this? What do I need to do?'"

That was a question that Moss had asked for many years. "I had struggled with my gender identity from when I was really young," he said. "I didn't know how to deal with it."

For the most part, Moss had dealt with it previously by a bit of misdirection. "She had very openly lived as a gay woman," Kramer said. And, as a gay woman, Moss had always dressed in shirts, slacks and ties - a traditional masculine manner.

"There was no backlash with that, it was always considered OK," Moss said.

At Resource, that was definitely OK. For decades, the marketing company has been in the forefront in dealing with such issues. Resource was one of the first in Ohio to offer same-sex partner benefits; and in 2007, Kramer testified in front of Congress in support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA.

This revelation was entirely new ground, however, and Moss didn't know if anyone had ever presented a similar case.

Legally, he was in somewhat murky territory. Transgender status is not explicitly protected under federal or Ohio anti-discrimination laws, said Jim Petrie, chairman of Bricker & Eckler's labor & employment practice group.

However, "the U.S. 6th Circuit has held that persons identified as transgendered may be protected under Title VII if the employer discriminates against them based on their inability to conform to sex stereotypes," Petrie said. "Moreover, a Columbus city ordinance expressly prohibits employers from discriminating against a person because of his/her gender identity or expression."

Even so, Moss was so apprehensive that he had even considered not mentioning the change and going by his old name at work.

"But I thought, 'I can't have two separate lives,'" he said. "I spent two to three weeks preparing for that meeting, and I was kind of armed with information."

As it turned out, Kramer and Barcelona were prepared to back up their talk about equal opportunity with action.

"The first thing was, I had a need for information," Barcelona said. "For the last 20 years, the really big issue has been around homosexuals in the workplace, making sure they're not discriminated against for their sexual preference.

"So the biggest thing was understanding what does transgender mean," Barcelona said. "And then, as an employer, how do we incorporate that so that Decker and anyone else feels they have equal rights and the same kind of support as anyone else."

With help from the Human Rights Campaign - the nation's largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equal-rights advocacy group - the management at Resource found various workplace issues that they had never considered but which they now would put under the microscope.

"Jamie wanted so much to be educated and involved," said Kathy Marvel of Human Rights Campaign. " Once Decker started talking, Jamie sent their current policies and said, 'Here's what we have; what are we missing?' She was the most hands-on HR person I've ever worked with. She was phenomenal, as was the whole company."

The issues included: gender-neutral bathrooms, employee policy language and health-care policies.

"The bathroom issue is the huge one," Marvel said. "Bathrooms, lockers, changing rooms - and it's always one that stops people in their tracks because they don't know what to do."

In Resource's century-old building, the restrooms typically have more than one stall and there is little that can be done to change them. However, two new bathrooms on the first floor have been changed so the signs are for both women and men.

The company also closely examined the language in its equal-opportunity employment policy and its code of conduct.

"It was already very inclusive," Barcelona said. "We had sexual orientation (previously covered) but not gender identity or gender expression." Those areas have since been updated.

Health care was, and remains, the most complicated issue.

"At most companies, it's really rare to have gender-reassignment surgery covered," Moss said. " Most insurance coverage considers it cosmetic surgery."

But other, less obvious points must be considered as well in deciding health coverage.

"Will he have some female organs (during transition) and will that be an issue in the future?" Barcelona said. "You don't treat men for an ovary bursting, after all. Every single layer of the onion that we're peeling back exposes another issue."

In addition, while the Human Rights Campaign reports that transgender-inclusive health-insurance benefits are not expensive, "we're in process of finding out what the cost would be," Barcelona said. "Will we need a second provider? What are the rules?"

Such questions faded into the background, at least momentarily, on the morning of Oct. 23, 2012, when Kramer sent an email to all 400 employees of Resource. The email, with the subject line "Super Important, Please Read," revealed Moss' story.

The next day, Resource President John Kadlic personally called each one of Moss' clients to alert them of the change. None of them even blinked an eye, Kramer said.

"If they (did), then I didn't think they should be our clients," Kramer said. "This has always been my compass, what I believe in, and I try to translate it into the business."

The painstaking work by everyone at Resource, the inclusive way they handled the announcement and the company's willingness to assume the cost of various changes in employee policies have left Moss and Marvel amazed and impressed.

"In a way, it was a test, and they passed, and that's a credit to Nancy," Moss said. "And Jamie spent the last nine months finding how I could be covered under the health plan.

"I wish some of my transgendered friends had a similar experience. I've seen some of them go through things, and generally it doesn't go well. Some have been fired, some not promoted, some employers just plain don't try and use the old name and pronoun."

Kramer and Barcelona, on the other hand, seem more impressed with Moss than with their own efforts.

"He's the bravest person I know," Kramer said.

"It's wonderfully fulfilling," Barcelona said. "It saddens me and us that we weren't there 20 years ago. But we learn and get better."