Respecting Employees’ Pronouns at Work: 11 Steps Leaders Can Take

Transgender and nonbinary individuals have long faced social stigma, devaluation, and outright discrimination at work. Addressing the use of pronouns in the workplace is a move in the right direction to recognize the identities of these employees and to create environments in which everyone feels more comfortable showing up as their whole selves. “It comes down to inclusion and respect,” says Regan Gross, HR knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management. “We now realize that to be all-inclusive and respectful, we must not box employees into one gender category but instead respect their choices and embrace them.”

There’s significant upside for employees and the organization – if leaders are thoughtful and respectful in their approach to introducing the emerging practice. This is still new territory for many organizations, but there are some actions that business leaders can take to acknowledge pronouns in the workplace and foster a more inclusive environment for transgender and nonbinary employees.

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Use pronouns in your e-mail signatures and digital profiles. “Adding pronouns to an e-mail signature is also a great show of allyship and support to LGBTQ colleagues and makes sharing pronouns more common in the workplace,” says CV Viverito, associate director of global initiatives with Out & Equal Workplace Advocates. “Encourage (but don’t force) employees to do the same to cultivate awareness of the varying gender identities.”

Use your own pronouns out loud. Since we are not always clear about others’ pronouns, start with offering yours. “Saying ‘Hi, I’m Subashini, and I use the pronouns she/her/hers’ creates a safe space for all to share without singling anyone out,” says Subashini Nadarajah, executive director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at marketing and communications agency VMLY&R. “Try this when introducing yourself in meetings or social events.”

Make it easy for others to recognize team members’ pronouns. Employees can guide others on proper pronoun usage; this can be as simple as correcting someone who asks “Have you seen him?” with “Yes, I saw her in the conference room, and I believe she uses the she/her pronouns.” According to Viverito, “Meetings are good opportunities to begin socializing pronouns in everyday interactions and business operations. At the start of meetings, staff can begin by introducing themselves and offering their pronouns if they wish to do so.”

Keep records of employees’ names and correct pronouns. “This helps ensure that, whenever possible, appropriate terms will be used for personnel and administrative purposes, such as directories, e-mail addresses, and business cards,” Nadarajah says.

Invest in training programs, onboarding initiatives, and employee handbook content. Take every opportunity to make it clear that proper pronoun usage is part of creating an environment in which all employees feel valued and respected.

Pay attention to pronouns in hiring and recruiting. The hiring process is the perfect opportunity for employees to disclose their pronouns. Make sure there is a designated space for that in onboarding or HR forms. Hiring managers can take the lead in interviews by introducing themselves with their own pronouns to signal inclusivity and safety to interviewees.

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Avoid gendered language. “This practice allows employees to shift from the classic ‘ladies and gentlemen’ or ‘Hey, guys!’ to language that will not alienate people,” says Viverito. Also consider identifying people by articles of clothing instead of using gendered language – for example, “the person in the blue scarf” instead of “the woman in the back.” Similarly, eliminate “sir” and “madam” from salutations if you want to foster an inclusive environment for gender nonconforming people. A simple “hello” works just as well.

Prioritize training to heighten awareness. As much as possible, the goal is to better understand the challenges that LGBTQ people face so that both managers and employees will be better equipped to understand how specific language, events, and interactions may impact those around them.

Explore emerging best practices in self-identification of LGBTQ employees. “LGBTQ data collection efforts shine light on diverse identities that may otherwise be invisible in the workplace,” Viverito says. “It can also improve an employer’s ability to analyze and respond to employee needs, identify where greater investment or attention may be needed, connect LGBTQ employees to professional development opportunities, and more.” In these early days of collecting gender identity data, software maker Adobe reviews employee engagement surveys, inbound requests for assistance, and one-one-one interactions to ensure that the company’s efforts are effectively meeting the needs of its transgender and nonbinary community, says Katie Juran, Adobe’s senior director of diversity & inclusion.

Will diversity, equity, and inclusion finally become a movement, or remain just a moment?

Take a holistic approach. A pronoun policy will have a bigger impact when an organization has other initiatives that show concern for the LGBTQ community, such as trans-inclusive healthcare policies and organization-wide educational initiatives, says Viverito. Some common programs include gender-inclusive nondiscrimination policies, talent pipeline programs and leadership development for transgender and nonbinary employees, transition guidelines and policies, and specific employee resource groups or business resource groups for LGBTQ employees.

Keep learning. Continue education on emerging topics and shifting best practices in this area. This is especially important for those who interact across cultural and linguistic boundaries. An increasingly global workforce needs tools to ensure that tenets of respect and cultural competency are built into everyday interaction. “Understand that there may be times when an employee may accidentally use the wrong pronoun or have a conversation that didn’t go the way they planned. We encourage them to apologize and move forward,” says Viverito. “What’s important is committing to doing better the next time.”