Respecting Pronouns: Why Recognizing Employees’ Gender Expression Is Important to the Workplace

You’ve almost certainly noticed an increase in the she/her/hers, he/him/his, and they/them/theirs designations appearing in e-mail signatures, Slack profiles, and Zoom windows. More organizations are now encouraging employees to share or clarify their gender pronouns – and reminding managers and fellow colleagues to be mindful of others’ pronouns – as a way for individuals to declare their gender identities clearly in the workplace. “The most common best practice is encouraging employees to put pronouns in e-mail signatures and other profiles at work,” says Annie Lin, vice president of people for talent acquisition firm Lever. “Doing so is a simple, yet powerful and meaningful statement.”

This increasing desire to recognize an employee’s gender identity is a signal that business leaders want to deepen their commitment to making the workplace a space where people can show up as their whole selves. “Thanks to the increased public awareness of gender identification, employers are coming to a better understanding that creating diverse workplaces includes gender identities,” says Regan Gross, HR knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “[It] drives the goal to be an inclusive workplace.”

Creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces that recognize individual identities isn’t just good manners; it’s good business. Workplace discrimination costs companies billions of dollars. On the other hand, the rewards of inclusive environments are abundant: boosting retention, engagement, productivity, innovations, resilience, and overall financial performance.

Addressing pronouns is also a reflection of a growing movement, in some countries, to acknowledge the identity of transgender and nonbinary individuals in the organization. Indeed, a growing recognition and acceptance of individuals whose identities or behaviors don’t fit into a “gender-normative” checkbox is having an impact from Madison Avenue (toymaker Hasbro dropped the Mr. from its Potato Head brand’s name) to the U.S. Congress (the House of Representatives unveiled new rules to go gender neutral to “honor all gender identities by changing pronouns and familial relationships in the House Rules to be gender-neutral”).

In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court settled one of the biggest questions in employment law in recent years, ruling that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Right Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Although time will tell how that ruling will impact employers, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated that Title VII’s prohibited acts of discrimination include “intentionally and persistently failing to use the name and gender pronoun that correspond to the gender identity with which the employee identifies [and has] communicated to management and employees.”

While this seems like a rising tide of inclusivity for transgender and nonbinary individuals, efforts to recognize pronouns in the workplace are still quite nascent and fraught with challenges. There remain many countries, regions, industries, and workplaces where transgender and nonbinary employees feel uncomfortable (at best) or in danger (at worst) with publicly announcing their pronouns. Even as more organizations and legislative bodies move toward acknowledging transgender rights and recognition, there are also movements lobbying against such progress.

Using preferred pronouns is a just a start in overcoming issues that transgender individuals encounter in their work lives – and these efforts should be handled with respect and safety in mind. Those organizations that do prioritize gender pronouns in the workplace, however, are paving the way for greater diversity and inclusivity and the substantial benefits that accrue as a result.

Two men talking in an office environment

The complexity of language

Pronouns may seem like simple parts of speech. But they are a complex business. “Languages handle pronouns and gender in different ways,” Adam Rogers wrote in Wired. “Some avoid gender altogether, some gender just the pronouns, others inflect the nouns, too.” Certain languages even use masculine words as plurals or generics, like mankind – although we can just as easily say humankind.

Efforts to un-gender gendered language have been underway for some time. Rather than have two gender-specific words for something, the English language has evolved toward using only a neutral term; using pilot instead of aviator and aviatrix or police officer instead of policeman. The quest for gender-neutral pronouns is similarly in flux. While the singular they is the more common neutral pronoun in the English language, others include ze, sie, ey, ve, and tey. And this is not just happening in English; communities all over the world are examining the current structure of their languages and exploring ways to make them inclusive.

In addition, an individual’s preferred pronouns can change over time: pronouns may shift when someone is transitioning or has transitioned to another gender or more frequently for individuals who are genderfluid, or are still exploring their gender identities.

Pride flags waving below a blue sky

Acknowledging the trials of transgender employees

At the heart of the issue are the long-standing challenges transgender and nonbinary individuals encounter in the workplace. “Despite a growing global awareness of the struggles trans people face, many employers remain ill-equipped to create the policies and workplace cultures that would support trans employees,” a 2020 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article pointed out. “Indeed, even companies that are LGBTQ+-friendly usually focus more on the ‘LGB’ than on the ‘TQ+’.”

One survey of 105 transgender employees in the United States found that 47% experienced some discriminatory behavior daily: transphobic remarks, being ignored, being pressured to act in traditionally gendered ways. Those employees also reported significant increases in their own hypervigilance and rumination following such an experience, leading to emotional exhaustion. In another study of 165 transgender employees, researchers replicated those results and correlated them to negative outcomes, including diminished job satisfaction and a greater desire to quit.

“When intolerance prevents individuals from exercising their talents,” Kilian Huber, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, wrote last year, “there tend to be widespread, long-lasting negative economic effects.” The problem is stark given the state of transgender inclusivity in most organizations, demanding a cultural shift, the professor noted. As the HBR article noted: “A failure to adopt trans-specific policies and practices can cost businesses dearly in the form of higher turnover, decreased engagement and productivity, and possible litigation.”

Research on the effective recruitment, support, and retention of transgender employees is limited, but growing. In the best cases, addressing pronoun usage can signal a shift from gender bias to gender equity. “Work can be stressful,” says Suba Nadarajah, global executive director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at marketing and communications agency VMLY&R, where they strive to make employees feel safe expressing who they are. “The emotional weight of having to suppress or deny your gender identity is something that should never be added onto this stress.”

However, binary pronouns are embedded in day-to-day interactions. “It’s easy to take for granted how many assumptions we make about people’s gender identities,” says CV Viverito, deputy director of global programs and stakeholder engagement with Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, where they manage programming to advance LGBTQ workplace inclusion in Brazil and Latin America, China, and India. “As more companies invest in LGBTQ inclusion and gender-inclusive workplaces, pronouns have become a focal point and a driving force for inclusion.”

People seated in a row watching a presentation, applauding

They: Your colleagues, your managers, your future leaders

Pronoun usage is a small step in a more inclusive direction – one that has some popular support in the United States. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of Americans believe that employers should learn and use employees’ pronouns in the workplace, according to 2018 Harris Poll survey commissioned by Out & Equal and Workplace Communications. Around two-thirds agreed that employers should intervene when an employee misuses a co-worker’s pronouns or name, and 58% believed that regular misuse is a form of workplace harassment.

More employees than ever understand that gender can be flexible. Around one in five adults knows someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, according to a 2019 Pew Research report. Millennials – who represent the largest generation in the workforce – are more likely to identify as LGBTQ (20%) than Generation X (12%) or Baby Boomers (7%), according to a 2017 Harris Poll conducted for GLAAD. Those in Gen Z (35%) are even more likely than Millennials (25%) to say they know someone who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, according to the Pew Research study.

Transgender and nonbinary individuals are important demographics for companies tussling for top talent. “Many companies are in a very tight competition to hire and retain strong talent, so it would be shortsighted not to invest in supporting these individuals and their success,” says Katie Juran, Adobe’s senior director of diversity and inclusion. “Respecting everyone’s pronouns is one small way we can do that.”

A hand reaching out toward the sun

A sign of respect – and hope

Despite their business value, inclusivity strategies to make the workplace more welcoming to transgender and nonbinary employees are new. Most organizations are just beginning to increase their efforts, some solely focused on legal compliance. In many cases, these efforts are driven by increased funding of and attention toward diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts in general.

D&I initiatives had already been gaining ground strategically, with 76% of organizations saying that they were a stated value or priority, in PwC’s most recent survey. In the past, many organization’s initiatives were overweighted on diversity in selection and recruiting. But once new hires from marginalized groups arrived, they often faced inequities, overt discrimination, and other issues leading to lower engagement, turnover, and legal issues.

There’s been a growing recognition that inclusion is just as important. When employees can come to work as themselves – respected and valued – it creates a sense of psychological safety, which in turn leads to greater retention, employee satisfaction, productivity, and long-term success.

That’s why HR and diversity leaders are educating themselves, inviting wisdom from others, and developing a more mature vocabulary for gender pronouns and related concerns. Specifically, they’re focusing on gender identity education and grassroots efforts.

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Honoring someone’s pronouns is, quite literally, the least an organization can do. But it can have an outsized impact. “It validates one’s identity and encourages authenticity,” says Viverito of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates. “An organization in which the wrong pronouns are used is one where people might feel like they are not fully seen. It certainly isn’t a place where employees are going to bring their full selves to work, or that fosters healthy, trusting relationships with their colleagues.”

Pronouns are fundamental. When someone uses the incorrect one, the impact can be devastating, adding to the challenges transgender and nonbinary individuals face, “things like gender dysphoria, anxiety, stigmatization, lowered self-esteem, or embarrassment,” Viverito says. “Being referred to by the wrong pronoun can lead to people feeling disrespected, invalidated, or isolated,” says Lin.

At Adobe, recognizing gender identity is one piece of a much larger D&I objective, called “Adobe For All.” “Most of us see our coworkers for more hours in the day than we see our family or friends,” says Juran of Adobe, “so respecting each individual’s pronouns is vital to building trust and strong working relationships. When people feel valued for who they are, they can be more creative, innovative, and successful.”

Activists in the LGBTQ+ community have found that supporting the designation of pronouns on e-mail signatures or in Slack profiles or introductions creates spaces that are more welcoming of transgender and gender-nonconforming people. “Knowing and using someone’s gender pronouns is a positive way to support the people you work with,” Lin says.

Two people sitting at a desk fist bump each other

Pronouns and organizational performance

Just as importantly, greater inclusivity (engendered by pronoun recognition, as a minimum) can have a positive impact on individual and organizational performance, while lack of it can drag down performance.

Specific studies of transgender employees experience are limited, but a 2018 HRC study offers some insight: 46% of LGBTQ workers said they were closeted at work (down just slightly from the 50% reported in a 2008 report. A similar number (45%) said that enforcement of the non-discrimination policies was dependent on their supervisor’s own feelings towards LGBTQ people. More than half (53%) reported hearing jokes about lesbian or gay people at least once in a while, and nearly one-third (31%) said they felt unhappy or depressed at work.

Workplace discrimination generally is estimated to cost U.S. businesses US$64 billion. It’s worth noting that “a significant number of those workers are gay and transgender individuals who have been treated unfairly simply because of their sexual orientation and gender identity,” according to a report by the Center for American Progress.

On the flip side, the rewards of an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ employees are borne out in retention data. A full one in four employees report staying in a job specifically because the environment was inclusive, according to the HRC study. “When companies fully support the people that work within them, engagement, retention, productivity, and resilience are a few of the many results,” says Lin. Those who feel appreciated and heard at work are willing to step up and support team members, overachieve, and productively work through challenges, according to Lin.

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

Research has shown that diverse workplaces generate better financial performance, increased employee engagement and retention, and greater innovation. On the other hand, discrimination costs employers in litigation, lower productivity, brand and morale problems, and increased turnover. “Supporting and promoting diverse employees can not only do the opposite but also increase revenue,” says Gross of SHRM.

Companies in the top quartile of diversity are more likely to achieve above-average profitability, according to McKinsey & Company’s 2019 global study. Companies with more diverse leadership teams also report higher innovation revenue – 45% of total revenue versus 26%, of others, according to a 2018 BCG report. Two-thirds of executives at companies that aligned their business goals with D&I goals said that diversity is an important driver of company financial performance, according to a 2019 study by Weber Shandwick, United Minds, and KRC Research.

Leadership representation, however, is just a piece of the puzzle. An overwhelming 83% of Millennials were more engaged if they believed their company fostered an inclusive culture, according to a Deloitte survey. Gartner, which found that gender-diverse and inclusive teams outperformed gender-homogeneous and less inclusive ones by 50% on average, predicts that three-quarters of technology organizations with diverse and inclusive frontline decision-making teams will exceed their financial targets.

At VMLY&R, there is a positive correlation between inclusivity, creativity, and the bottom line. “You attract more diverse talent through openness. When you’re more open, you’re free to be more creative,” says Nadarajah, noting that LGBTQ+ adults held a combined buying power of $3.7 trillion (according to 2015 figures from LGBT Capital). “We want to foster an environment that enables employees to bring their authentic selves to work. Using the correct pronoun creates a nurturing, robust, and authentic company culture.”

People put their hands in a pile in a show of solidarity

A movement, not a mandate

The pronouns we use are at once incredibly personal and also universal: they are one of the first and primary ways we identify each other.

Transgender and nonbinary individuals have long faced social stigma, devaluation, and discrimination. One survey of transgender individuals in the United States found that 77% actively took steps to avoid mistreatment at work, including hiding their gender identity, delaying their gender transition, refraining from asking their employers to use their correct pronouns, or quitting their jobs. Two-thirds reported negative outcomes (being fired or forced to resign, not being hired, or being denied a promotion). Almost a quarter said they suffered mistreatment based on their gender identity or expression.

It’s important to recognize that many transgender or nonbinary individuals weren’t comfortable in the past disclosing their pronouns at work; and that may continue to be the case. In certain countries or regions, there may be no legal gender-identity protections in place, and being open about their pronouns could be extremely dangerous.

The encouragement of pronoun openness may be a welcome first step, but insistence that employees declare their pronouns can be threatening. “It’s important for pronoun sharing to be voluntary so as not to inadvertently pressure someone to reveal their gender identity if they do not feel comfortable doing so,” Viverito explains.

Instead, employers are implementing inclusion training to facilitate awareness and sensitivity. “They are updating their policies to support gender pronouns [and] editing their handbooks to remove use of he/she,” says Gross of SHRM.

Some organizations and leaders may feel unsure and fearful about this process; it’s new and best practices are still emerging. “I think the thing employers seem to struggle with most is the conversation to have with an employee,” Gross says. “They aren’t sure how to broach the subject because it’s foreign territory, and they are fearful of offending an employee.”

Leaning on transgender or nonbinary employees to lead this process, however, may only increase the workplace stress. The goal of respectful pronoun use is to increase emotional safety for all employees; therefore, cautious progress is key.

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the use of gender-neutral pronouns appears to improve positive feelings toward LGBTQ+ individuals. There’s more value in behavior modeling and education than in forced compliance, which can have a detrimental effect.

One of the most common ways organizations normalize the introduction of preferred pronouns is within HR and D&I leadership – or in the C-suite. “People will take notice if you change your e-mail signature, which allows you to start the conversation around what drove you to do it, and why it matters,” says Lin of Lever. “You make it clear that you’re a safe person with whom to talk about gender.”

When cisgender leaders and employees lead by example rather than push for pronoun revelations from trans or non-binary team members, the practice can scale organically without putting pressure on those populations. Leaders can also educate themselves on the challenges that transgender and nonbinary individuals face in the workplace and share their learnings. Companies can focus on the language used in enterprise communication and how leaders can speak to employees in ways that are more inclusive.

Another area that still has a lot of opportunity is the imagery that companies use in their advertising, marketing, and employee-facing initiatives, says Juran. Including individuals who don’t adhere to traditional gender norms in the visual mix sends a powerful signal that we see and appreciate these individuals. Adobe has invested in (voluntary) employee storytelling as a way to build empathy across different racial, cultural, and gender identities. “There is a difference between understanding the concept of being nonbinary or transgender and actually hearing what that experience has been like for a colleague who is willing to share,” Juran says. “We have also had good success with bringing in external speakers and trainings in this space to help our employees’ understanding.”

Two coworkers high-fiving

A foundation for growth

Those who have never had to worry about which pronoun others use for them may think that gender pronouns are not terribly important. “For most people, singular and visible gender identity is a privilege,” says Lin. “But not everyone has this.”

Gender identity is an area where the needs of the few supersede the needs of the rest, agrees Juran. “For someone who is nonbinary, offering a way to share their pronouns and have their identity respected is critical,” Juran says. “It is absolutely worth companies making the investment in systems and organizational changes to create a welcoming environment for everyone.”

Pronouns are just the start. At VMLY&R, expression practices weren’t developed in a vacuum, but through conversations with those in the LGBTQ+ community and its allies. “The conversation is still being had,” says Nadarajah. “The act of becoming more empathetic and inclusive is always evolving.” VMLY&R recently launched its Proud Pronoun Project Web site – where individuals have the option to select their personal gender pronouns and produce a personalized background for Teams or Zoom to inform colleagues how they should be identified.

Pronouns may seem small to those who don’t have to think about them, but they’re meaningful – one step toward an overall goal of greater inclusivity. “HR can drive this objective,” says Gross of SHRM. “But to be successful it needs to achieve complete buy-in to translate to company culture.”

Some of this is already beginning to happen. Walmart recently allowed employees to wear pronoun pins on vests, badges, and lanyards. Lyft launched a “Two is Too Few” campaign, adding gender-neutral pronouns to its app (the first ride-sharing service to do so). In 2019, multinational law firm Baker McKenzie announced that it wanted to build a workforce that was 40% women, 40% men, and 20% gender-“flexible.” At VMLY&R, creating pronoun initiatives has manifested in other aspects of work. “It makes employees more comfortable with being their true selves at work,” Nadarajah says. “And in doing so, they have been more likely to raise their hand, participate, and be proud of where they’re working.”

Organizations are also making restroom modifications, dress-code policy changes, and communication shifts. They could also analyze gender-diverse leadership representation, pay equity, and leave programs for employees undergoing gender transitions.

More will need to be done – beyond just pronouns.