August 6, 2020

He/She/They/Ze: How Gender Pronouns Are Changing the Way We Work

gender pronouns at work

Pronouns may be some of the smallest words in the English language—but they are by no means insignificant.

In fact, Merriam-Webster just pronounced “they” as 2019’s word of the year. 🙌

For transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people, the battle for correct gender pronoun usage is ongoing—which is why getting it right in the workplace is crucial.

Used incorrectly, misgendering can cause huge damage, affect self-esteem and in some cases even lead to self-harm or suicide. And with 47% of Americans saying they’re uncomfortable using gender-neutral pronouns, it’s up to employers to introduce measures to protect their workforce.

In this ultimate guide, we’ll help you figure out when and why to use gender pronouns, what to do if you make a mistake, and how to create a safe and supportive workplace culture for all of your employees. 

What are gender pronouns?

Gender pronouns are words that refer to someone who’s being talked about. They neatly sum up gender identity, and for transgender and gender nonconforming adults, they represent the key to social acceptance.

Here’s a list of the most commonly used gender pronouns:

  • They/them/theirs: This is probably the most common gender-neutral pronoun and can be used in the singular. For example, Alex grabbed their jumper because they were cold.  
  • Ze, zie or xe/hir/hir: Ze, zie and xe (pronounced ‘zee’) replace she/he/they. Hir (pronounced ‘here’) replaces her/hers/him/his/they/theirs. For example, Alex grabbed hir jumper because ze was cold.
  • Someone’s name: Some people simply prefer to use their name. For example, Alex grabbed Alex’s jumper because Alex was cold.

Want to dive deeper? This non-exhaustive list from the University of California, Davis, LGBTQIA Resource Center shows some other gender pronouns. 

"After nearly a year of soul-searching, research, therapy, support group attendance and deep personal reflection, I ‘came out’ to my supervisor as transgender… My heart was in my throat."

FAQ: How to use gender pronouns the right way

The number of US transgender adults is estimated at somewhere between 0.6% and 3% of the total population, and according to a recent study from UCLA’s Williams Institute (2016), that number is on the rise.

A best practice is to always behave as though there are transgender, nonbinary or gender nonconforming people at your workplace. 

Here’s a quick roundup of some common questions about using gender pronouns in the workplace: 

How do I find out which gender pronoun to use?

No one is obliged to discuss their gender at work. Period. That’s why it’s important to give employees the opportunity to do so, if they want to. If you’re referring to someone before you know their correct pronoun, opt for gender-neutral pronouns like they/them/their.

When should we talk about gender pronouns?

Although no one’s required to discuss their pronouns, employees should feel able to if they choose—so as an employer, it’s up to you to lead the way to make sure gender pronouns are on everyone’s mind. For example, you can ask new employees which gender pronouns they prefer; or encourage people to include their pronouns during meeting intros if they want to.

Should I encourage all my employees to use gender pronouns?

The more comfortable employees (even cisgender* employees) feel sharing their gender pronouns, the better.  Start by sharing your own preferred pronouns, and encourage your teams to follow suit. Suggest that employees add their gender pronouns to their email signatures, name tags and even on LinkedIn.

*Cisgender is someone whose gender identity corresponds with their birth gender.

What if I make a mistake?

We all make mistakes sometimes. If you get it wrong, acknowledge it, restate the correct pronoun (as in, “Sorry, I meant they”) and remember for next time. The most important thing is to show you care about getting it right.

Data shows that younger generations of workers are having an easier time adopting gender-neutral pronouns at work. But with the right information and mindset, you’ll make it easy for staff of all ages and backgrounds to start doing better.

Gender pronouns and beyond: How to support your trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming workforce 

#1.  Review your processes

Actions speak louder than words—which is why the first step to a supportive workplace is to decide how to implement your diversity values.

“You should have a process in place,” explains Stephanie Battaglino, CEO and Founder of Follow Your Heart LLC, in a Human Rights Campaign interview. “It’s one thing to have policy, but you also need to have a process in place. You need to have a roadmap, so you have a better understanding of the steps you need to take with [your trans employees].”

From bathroom access to hiring processes, there are simple steps you can take to create a culture of acceptance and support:

  • Hiring process: Take time to review your hiring process and make sure you’re doing everything possible to eliminate bias and retain top talent of all genders.
  • Bathroom access: Create gender neutral bathrooms or encourage employees to use whichever bathroom aligns with their gender identity. Be clear with all employees that it’s their responsibility to be respectful and welcoming to trans people in all areas, including the bathroom.
  • Dress code: Make sure company dress codes are gender neutral and allow anyone to choose any clothing combo that appeals to them.
  • Pronoun usage: Start by sharing your own pronouns on email footers and LinkedIn, and then encourage employees to follow suit during onboarding and during icebreakers at meetings. “It gives me a sign that this place is on it. If they’re asking me my pronouns right away, this is a place I want to work,” explains Angelica Ross, CEO of Transtech Social Enterprises, in a Human Rights Council interview

#2. Shout about your diversity values

For many trans people, the workplace can be intimidating.

In fact, a 2015 study of almost 30K trans individuals showed a huge 77% avoided living as their true selves at work; one in six revealed they’d lost a job due to their gender identity or expression; and a further 23% reported other forms of mistreatment in the workplace.

That has to change—and as an employer, it’s up to you to make that happen.

Here are some top tips to get you started:

  • Shout about your diversity values: Roll out the welcome mat by including your diversity values in job descriptions and throughout the hiring process.
  • Use inclusive language: Avoid gender-heavy words like “powerful” or “affectionate”. Research shows the wording you use affects who applies, so always aim for inclusive language in job ads.
  • Show you’re open to conversation: Remind candidates and employees you’ve got their back. Offer regular opportunities to discuss issues, or give feedback (think: 1:1s, anonymous surveys, group discussions, etc). 

#3. Support gender transitions

For people who go through it, gender transitioning is probably the single most important journey of their lives.

Ethan Salathiel, Co-founder and Executive Coach at Bound Coaching & Behavioural Change shares his story: 

“[I] transitioned genders during a senior role at HSBC. I was the first transman to use the group policy, and the conversations I had with senior leaders at the time helped educate and inform a wide audience based on what I was going to embark on. I was always open about my experience despite the difficulties that created for me personally—it was important to help the culture evolve in this way and shape the policy.”

Not all trans people will want to open up about their experience, but it’s your job to always be open, supportive and willing to learn.

These top resources will help you create a supportive environment for people transitioning gender:

#4. Respect trans people’s privacy

It’s up to each individual as to whether they choose to talk about their gender identity. For some, it’s a matter of importance to be open—but for others, it’s just too scary.

A respondent to the recent Harvard Business Review study shared the moment she ‘came out’ to her supervisor:

"After nearly a year of soul-searching, research, therapy, support group attendance and deep personal reflection, I ‘came out’ to my supervisor as transgender… I finished talking, paused, and waited for her reply. My heart was in my throat. I knew this meeting might forever change the way she thought of me, and that I could not un-say what had been said."

As an employer, it’s your job to understand the levity of ‘coming out’ and never discuss people’s gender identity without their consent—getting gender pronouns right is a huge part of that.

Not only do your employees deserve privacy, it’s also a legal requirement for you to respect their wishes.

  • The Data Protection Act: Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights and confidentiality case law protects employee personal data, unless information is required by law (for example if someone is in danger or info is requested by the police).
  • Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC): A GRC protects personal information under section 22 of the Gender Recognition Act. If someone holds a GRC, it’s illegal for businesses or employers to share previous names, gender history or trans identity without consent. Learn more about the GRC.

“When it comes to identification and legal documents, companies need to realize not everybody can get through the hoops all the time, fast enough. When I start a job and they print out the schedule, my preferred name should be on that schedule—because if it’s not then you’ve just outed me to everyone without me having that conversation first and that puts me in a very vulnerable position,” explains Angelica in the Human Rights Council interview.  

"Pronouns are important because it’s the essence of who I am,” Stephanie Battaglio, Founder & CEO, Follow Your Heart LLC

#5. Develop gender diversity and stress-reduction training

Inclusive workplaces need more than just policy—they need a constant flow of education.

From teaching employees about gender pronouns to encouraging conversation through roleplay, diversity training helps employees understand and navigate new experiences.

  • Hire a specialist gender diversity coach: Diversity coaches specialize in talking about difficult issues and overcoming inbuilt beliefs. Training is based on education and empathy-building.
  • Implement stress-reduction training: Inclusivity isn’t just about educating the wider workforce, it’s about supporting trans people with day-to-day challenges. Stress-reduction training can help all employees deal with high-anxiety situations in and out of work.
  • Encourage feedback and monitor company culture: Continuously develop and adapt your processes by asking for—and acting on—feedback. 

Gender Pronouns in the Workplace: A small word can make a huge difference

From developing diversity training programs to supporting gender transitions, it’s up to employers to create an environment where employees feel safe, comfortable and included.

Gender pronouns lie at the root of the matter.They announce someone’s identity to the world, so getting it right matters.

“Pronouns are important because it’s the essence of who I am,” explains Stephanie Battaglio. “I understand that this might be a little weird for you because you don’t have a trans person in your life, so here’s what you do—you stop, you take a deep breath and you ask. By asking, that will go so far because that tells me that you care.”

Remember: this is a journey for your employees, your business and yourself—there will be bumps in the road, but the ultimate destination is a diverse workplace centered on equality, productivity and inclusion.