An Employer's Guide to Using Pronouns at the Workplace
When we hear the term “pronoun” our minds revert back to elementary school grammar lessons: “Class, personal pronouns are words we put in place to represent people. I, we, me, he, she, it, they, them and so on.” Like most things in life, things have gotten a bit more complex since elementary school, and pronouns have taken on a larger context.
In the last few decades gender expression and sexuality have taken many steps forward, with LGBTQ+ individuals gaining more discrimination protections and a wider societal understanding of the complexities and sensitivities that surround gender. From transgender individuals (those whose gender identity does not align with their sex assigned at birth) to gender non-binary individuals (those whose gender identity or expression does not fall within binary constructs of gender), the conversation around gender and pronouns has grown more complicated than “I, me, she, he.” And all signs say there is more to come: a recent Pew Survey found 1.6 percent of U.S. adults, or 5.2 million people, are openly transgender or nonbinary, and about 5 percent of people younger than 30 are transgender or nonbinary.
In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination includes discrimination based on an employee’s gender identity or sexual orientation. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's technical assistance publication, “Protections Against Employment Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity” considers the use of pronouns or names that are inconsistent with an individual’s gender identity as unlawful harassment.
These gender expressions may seem like a private matter, but they impact our daily lives in countless ways, ranging from how bathrooms are labeled to how you introduce a colleague in a meeting. In this guide we look at why employers should care what pronouns are used in the workplace and where they are used, as well as give a high level set of terminology you should be familiar with.
Why is it important for employers to use proper gender pronouns?
From obvious legal reasons to less obvious team building ones, correctly using team members’ pronouns is becoming more and more essential. Taking a moment to reflect on the importance of why pronouns matter can help avoid missteps in the future and put us on a path to building an inclusive workplace.
- Signal of mutual respect. Since we were building fires in caves, calling someone by the right name has been a sign of respect and courtesy. Much the way you would not refer to Sally in the Art Department as Tina, using He to refer to an employee who has expressed their pronoun is They shows a lack of respect (or contempt) and has the potential to come across as unprofessional and careless.
- Allyship. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Roe v. Wade court decision and LGBTQ+ controversies, the pressure for employers and businesses to divulge their values has been accelerated. From customers to employees, businesses are asked to declare where they stand on hot topic issues, and are expected to take serious efforts to be diverse. More than ever before, allyship—association with the members of a marginalized or mistreated group to which one does not belong—is paramount. Correctly using gender pronouns, and making room for them to be shared by individuals can leave a positive impression and reaffirm your company’s support.
- Mental health. Aside from the distraction of constantly navigating being misgendered, using incorrect gender pronouns can have long-lasting impacts on employees and lead to an unhappy work environment. Going back to the Sally in the Art Department example, imagine how frustrating and demoralized Sally would feel if her colleagues continued to call her Tina! One 2016 study found that affirming a person’s pronouns lowers depression and raises self-esteem. And who wouldn’t want to do that for their employees?
- Harassment. The most textbook reason to use proper gender pronouns is to avoid harassment claims. Sexual harassment is defined as “inappropriate sexual or gender-related statements that become so serious or so pervasive that they create a hostile work environment” and Federal courts have ruled that deliberately misusing an employees gender pronouns falls under this definition with more states and localities piling on further protections.
NOTE: Beyond this, whether or not an employee has taken the steps to change their legal name and gender is irrelevant—meaning the employee’s pronouns are up to them to decide. “Savvy, inclusive employers embrace their employee’s pronoun preferences, not just because of the potential legal ramifications, but also because it is the right thing to do, says employment attorney and partner Sheila Willis of FIsher Phillips, LLP.
What should employers consider when pronouns are involved?
As this is new territory for many employers, here are a few key considerations for employers:
- You can’t force your employees to disclose their pronouns, but you can create opportunities for them to share their correct ones. From hiring paperwork, to employee questionnaires, giving employees an opportunity to check a box for their pronoun helps make a healthy environment—but you must make sure to include an “N/A” or “I would prefer not to state” option. An employee may not be ready to “come out” and disclose their gender identity to their colleagues, and a mandate would create unnecessary pressure and stress.
NOTE: this is not the same as requesting an employee to state their gender on employment forms.
- The term “preferred pronoun” is not actually preferred. Much like your name is not your preferred name, pronouns are viewed to be more a matter of fact than preference. Err towards using terms like “correct pronoun” or “proper pronoun” in place of “preferred pronoun.”
- Don’t ask medical questions. While your intention is to respect someone's gender expression, it is not to poke into private medical information. Be mindful to keep conversation around gender away from any questions about surgeries, treatments or other personal medical matters.
- The best thing you can do is lead by example. You may feel you don’t need to disclose your pronouns because they are traditional, but doing so helps create an environment where your team can share their pronouns without unwanted attention. Introducing yourself as “Lisa she/her/hers” can help Jason feel comfortable saying “Jason they/them/theirs”—and make sure to use the proper pronouns when you have been made aware of them!
Where are pronouns used in the workplace?
While it may sound obvious where pronouns are used—in place of nouns right?—there are a few employment-related situations that might escape us, and also areas where employers can show their grasp of the importance of pronoun usage by overindexing on being clear with their pronouns.
- Introductions. Whether introducing a new hire around the office, or a long term employee in a meeting, correctly using gender pronouns when giving introductions is key in proper pronoun usage.
Example: Lisa, meet Jason from Facilities, they are responsible for the incredible new layout in the conference rooms.
- Email signatures/video call displays. Places that display your name for public usage are great ways to display your allyship and create a safe space for others to disclose their pronouns. Adding a simple he, she, they, them, ze or cos after your name in your email signature or Zoom display name can be impactful.
- Salutations. “Hey guys!” or “Welcome ladies!” may feel like normal ways to start an email or greet a group of colleagues, but they imply gender in an environment where gender is basically irrelevant. Keeping salutations to gender ambiguous greetings like “Hey crew” or “Hello everyone” can avoid an unintentional misgendering.
- Performance reviews. If you’ve filled out an employee review before, you’ve probably written or spoken the words “He met expectations” or “She has room for improvement.” This is a situation to be sure you are using the proper pronouns if your employee has expressed them, or if you are unclear and want to avoid any missteps err towards non gendered terms.
- Employee handbooks. Often, employee handbooks contain references to employees as “he” or “she” or have references to gender in their policies. “When employers conduct their periodic reviews of their handbook policies, they should review to ensure gender-inclusive language and avoid policies, such as dress code policies, that ascribe certain expectations based on gender.” according to Fisher Phillips LLP partner and employment attorney Sheila Willis.
What are the most commonly used genders in the workplace?
While definitions and pronouns are being added regularly, here is a list of current pronoun classifications as well as a few terms that will help you navigate conversations around gender.
In a sentence
She wants you to use her pronouns.
He wants you to use his pronouns.
Ze wants you to use hir pronouns.
They want you to use their pronouns.
Co wants you to use cos pronouns.
No pronoun/name (use the person’s name instead of a pronoun)
___ (name) wants you to use ___ (name) pronouns.
Xe wants you to use xyr pronouns.
Hy wants you to use hys pronouns.
Terms to know
- “Deadname”: the birth name of a transgender person who has changed their name as part of their gender transition.
- “Gender”: Often defined as a social construct of norms, behaviors and roles that varies between societies and over time. Gender is often categorized as male, female or nonbinary.
- “Gender expression”: how a person presents gender outwardly, through behavior, clothing, voice or other perceived characteristics. Society identifies these cues as masculine or feminine, although what is considered masculine or feminine changes over time and varies by culture.
- “Gender identity”: one's own internal sense of self and their gender, whether that is man, woman, neither or both. Unlike gender expression, gender identity is not outwardly visible to others.
- “Misgendering”: using a pronoun that contradicts one’s gender expression.
Shannon Salzano is a New York Times bestselling author with over 10 years experience writing on employment law issues. Former editor of the hr|simple library, Shannon pens the weekly hr|you newsletter, highlighting the latest employment news and legal changes.
Sources for this blog
Behymer, Cheryl L. “Guidance for Updating Employee Handbooks with Gender-Neutral Pronouns.” Fisher Phillips, 7 Feb. 2020, https://www.fisherphillips.com/news-insights/guidance-for-updating-employee-handbooks-with-gender-neutral-pronouns.html.
Shea, Robin. “Judge Shuts down LGBT Guidance.” Constangy, Brooks, Smith, Prophete, 7 Oct. 2022, https://www.constangy.com/employment-labor-insider/judge-shuts-down-eeoc-lgbt-guidance.
Wamsley, Laurel. “A Guide to Gender Identity Terms.” NPR, 2 June 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/06/02/996319297/gender-identity-pronouns-expression-guide-lgbtq.
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