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The Importance of Correct Pronouns in the Workplace

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Words are powerful conduits with which we convey meaning, connect with community, and describe our worlds. Yet nothing is more powerful and personal than the words we use to describe ourselves, including our names and gender pronouns.

To be more mindful of diverse gender identities within employee populations, many organizations are making strides to incorporate proper gender pronouns in the workplace. Correct use of pronouns can deeply impact the daily lives and mental health of individuals, which contributes to an inclusive workplace.

This article will dive into the importance of correct gender pronouns at work, plus offer practical tips on how organizations and individuals can respect gender pronouns.

The Significance of Gender Pronouns

What are gender pronouns, and why do they matter?

Gender pronouns are words we use to identify ourselves outside of our names, such as “I/me,” “she/her,” “he/him,” and “they/them.” Not only are pronouns important for daily communication, but they are also pivotal for conveying or affirming an individual’s gender identity.

Being misgendered, even unintentionally, can be a painful and invalidating experience, especially in a work setting where employees want to be valued. Even worse, depending on the situation, intentional refusal to use someone’s correct pronouns can be a form of harassment.

But when you educate yourself on pronouns, and commit to using pronouns correctly, you demonstrate genuine allyship in the workplace.

People who may choose gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns for themselves include:

  • Transgender individuals
  • Nonbinary individuals
  • Genderqueer individuals

By using their correct pronouns at work, you offer affirmation and respect.

Gender Neutral/Gender Inclusive Pronouns

Some gender-nonconforming individuals use gender-neutral pronouns, such as “they/them/their.” These gender-inclusive pronouns do not associate a gender with the individual being discussed. An example of this would be to ask, “Did someone leave their lunch on the table?”

Gender-inclusive pronouns may feel modern, but the Oxford English Dictionary traced the use of the singular “they” back to medieval text from 1375!

Neopronouns

Neopronouns are a category of new (neo) pronouns used in place of “he,” “she,” or “they” when referring to someone without the context of gender. Some examples of neopronouns are xe/xem/xyr, ze/zie/zir, or “Carlton went to zir hair appointment. Ze wanted a new look for zirself.”

There are variations to neopronoun pronunciation, so ask for clarification. Although neopronouns are less common, it’s still important to respect their usage. When in doubt, refer to the guidance on use and pronunciation.

Unknown/Not Using Pronouns

Some individuals choose not to disclose their gender pronouns. In these instances, or when an individual’s gender expression is unknown, the correct way to refer to them is by using their name. An example would be to say, “Mary is grabbing ketchup for Mary’s burger.”

How to Use Pronouns in the Workplace

Proper identity expression is becoming more of a business imperative as Gen Z and Millennials become the dominant workplace demographics. Studies show that one in ten millennials and one in six Gen Z identify as transgender or queer, a considerable increase from previous generations. These generations want to see themselves reflected in the places they work, which is why 60 percent of Gen Z say there should be more gender-neutral options on online forms that ask for gender, and over one-third report knowing someone who uses “they/them” gender pronouns.

So what can well-meaning organizations, hiring managers, and other allies do to use proper pronouns at work?

Update Our Language

As Paige Mattox from Evergreen poignantly notes, “We regularly update the language of our phones, computers, and other technology, so why shouldn’t we update our language?”

Organizations can create a culture of inclusion by creating clear leadership and guidelines around gender pronouns and gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language in all formal and informal communication. Having a top-down approach shifts the burden away from gender-nonconforming individuals or those wishing not to disclose their gender identity instead of expecting them to create the conversation.

Additionally, businesses should normalize including language in their employee policies that stipulate usage of proper gender pronouns when an individual has chosen to share them. Including language around “preferred name policies” and safe self-identification can also foster better autonomy for transgender or nonbinary individuals to share their gender pronouns.

Companies shouldn’t force employees to disclose their pronouns. However, businesses can actively create opportunities for employees to share pronouns in safe ways. Some ideas include:

  • hiring paperwork
  • employee questionnaires
  • feedback loops

Consider Including Pronouns in Email Signature Blocks

Many organizations and individuals are choosing to add gender pronouns to their email signatures, Zoom/video profiles, and even professional profiles like LinkedIn. Not only does this practice reduce unintentional misgendering, but it can also signal inclusion to individuals interacting with you. Even if the recipient of the email doesn’t feel comfortable adding their own pronouns, it is a small gesture that shows acceptance of diverse gender expression.

To minimize confusion surrounding email signature pronouns, many organizations are sharing templates for employees to use and personalize.

Everyday Allyship

Intentionally using gender-neutral language is one way to model allyship in the workplace. Here are a few examples:

  • When a colleague’s or employee’s pronouns are unknown, use gender-inclusive pronouns or refer to them by their name. You can update which pronouns you use once you feel comfortable asking or the individual chooses to share with you directly.
  • Once you’re aware of an individual’s correct pronoun expression, be mindful of using them in all written or verbal communication.
  • When meeting new individuals, consider introducing yourself with your name and pronouns at the meeting kick-off. During group meetings, consider asking attendees to introduce themselves with names and pronouns—but only if they feel comfortable sharing.
  • Reduce usage of gendered salutations such as “Welcome ladies and gentlemen” or “Hey, guys.” These seemingly innocuous phrases imply gender in a setting where gender is irrelevant and could easily be switched to “Welcome everyone.”
  • If you make a mistake—as all humans do—apologize, correct yourself, and move the conversation forward. Are you making regularly? Try practicing beyond your interactions with this person to get comfortable referring to individuals with diverse gender identities.
  • Consider doing additional research by learning directly from gender non-conforming individuals through outlets such as podcasts (we recommend shows like LGBTQ&A), research hubs like Pew, or informed books like How to They/Them by Stuart Getty.

Mistakes to Avoid

Avoid mandating or pressuring others to disclose their pronouns, as this can create uncomfortable work interactions or feel disingenuous. Pronouns are personal and should be an individual’s choice to share when they are ready. Try to also avoid using terms like “chosen” or “preferred” when referring to gender pronouns because it can suggest that gender identity is a choice. The term “correct pronoun” or “proper pronoun” would be more fitting.

Proper Pronouns are More Than a Personal Preference

The recent dialogue around gender pronouns in the workplace is a significant step in the right direction for members of the LGBTQ+ community. But we are in the beginning stages of a systemic shift.

Organizations and individuals can take simple, daily measures to show support for their gender-nonconforming colleagues. These actions include:

  • educating themselves
  • taking actionable steps toward inclusion in the workplace
  • being mindful of how powerful individuals’ pronouns are for workplace success and mental wellness

If your workplace could use additional guidance on DEIB in the workplace, connect with Insight Global today. We offer multiple DEIB training solutions, tailored to your business needs.