For years, workplaces have worked to create safe and friendly workplaces for their LGBTQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, and now LGBTQIA with the addition of intersex and asexual — team members. But with the increasing number of people entering the workforce who do not identify as either male or female, identify as both, or reject gender labels entirely, organizations are in search of guidance and/or advice. The individuals refer to themselves as gender fluid, gender neutral, gender queer or gender nonconforming.
By 2025, Millennials, the most diverse generation so far, will represent 75% of the workforce. Millennials are more than two times as likely to identify as LGBTQIA and more likely to identify as non-binary or gender fluid than previous generations. About 3% of people between the ages of 18 and 35 identify as gender neutral, according to a 2017 Harris Poll commissioned by GLADD, an LGBTQ advocacy group.
Advocates expect that percentage to increase as younger generations who are more open about gender identity enter the workforce. A Pew Research report from 2018 supports that expectation in its findings that in Generation Z, 35% of those between the ages of 13 and 21 said they know someone who identifies with gender-neutral pronouns.
What is a pronoun?
A pronoun is a word that refers to either the people talking (like “I” or “you”) or someone or something that is being talked about (like “she,” “it,” “them,” and “this”).
Gender pronouns (such as “he/him/his” and “she/her/hers”) refer to people that you are talking about.
Gender pronouns are the way that we refer to each other’s gender identity – though we often don’t think about them. It’s a habit that’s so ingrained, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Most of us are used to looking at someone, categorizing them into “he” or “she” by some unconscious instinct, and then starting to talk about them that way.
But a person’s name, their clothing, or any other outward signals don’t necessarily tell you how that person identifies. That goes not just for transgender folks, but those of any gender identity. And being misgendered (referred to in a way that assumes a gender other than the one the person identifies as) can be hurtful, not to mention disrespectful. Some people may prefer a gender-neutral pronoun such as “they” (e.g. “I know Sam. They work in the mail room.”)
Nothing is more personal than the way in which people refer to us through our name and pronouns. Using a person’s chosen name and desired pronouns is a form of mutual respect and more than common courtesy; it’s their civil right. Federal law on the subject arises out of agency and court interpretations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which expressly prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) believes Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination also bans any employment discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Those prohibited acts include “intentionally and persistently failing to use the name and gender pronoun that correspond to the gender identity with which the employee identifies, and which the employee has communicated to management and employees.” Both managers and co-workers should use the individual’s chosen name and pronoun “in employee records and in communications with and about the employee.”
Not sure which pronoun a person uses?
Listen to the pronoun other people use when referring to them. Someone who knows the person well will probably use the correct pronoun. If you must ask which pronoun the person uses, start with your own. For example, “Hi, I’m Alex and I use the pronouns he and him. What are your gender pronouns?” If you start the conversation with yourself, you’re not putting someone on the spot. Then, use that person’s pronoun and encourage others to do so.
Here are some examples of opportunities to ask for or offer pronouns:
- Interviewing process: Create a place to declare preferred name and pronouns. Many Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are driven by legal name. Creating an opportunity to disclose preferred names is a recommended best practice not only for transgender people, but for anyone who uses a preferred (or “nick”) name.
- Onboarding process: Create a place to declare preferred name and pronouns. Use these as basis of introducing new team members.
- Corporate social networks or platforms, digital directories: Allow team members to self-ID preferred name and pronouns as part of their profile.
- Include personal pronouns in email signature lines.
- Make offering personal pronouns part of the introduction process at the start of meetings or events. However, if you feel this practice will have the effect of singling out someone in the room, avoid it. Example: “We’re going to go around the room to introduce ourselves. Please say your name, the department you work in and, if you want, your personal pronouns.” “My name is John Smith. I work in Quality Control. My pronouns are they, them, theirs.”
- Role model appropriate pronoun when introducing people to their new work group. Example: “Everyone I am pleased to introduce John Smith who is transferring over from Quality Control. They will be the lead person on the new product development project.”
When someone shares their pronouns with you, some appropriate responses include:
- “Thanks for letting me know!”
- “Cool, my pronouns are [they/them, he/him, etc.].”
- “Great, I’ll look up how to use those correctly. Mind spelling them for me?”
What if you make a mistake?
It’s okay to make mistakes. If you accidentally use the wrong pronoun, apologize quickly and sincerely, then move on. The bigger deal you make out of the situation, the more uncomfortable it is for everyone.
Any final tips?
This may feel like a lot to think about already but try to avoid gendered language. Pronouns are hardly the only examples of gendered language we use on a regular basis.