How to use Gender Pronouns in the workplace

Remember that irksome feeling when people don't pronounce your name rightly? It can be annoying when people address you wrongly, correct? That's because you associate your name with your identity. But, even when someone refers to us indirectly or as part of a group, the pronoun they choose to identify us with matters significantly. If you haven't thought about matching appropriate pronouns against the right individuals, you've probably been insensitive and hurt some people unknowingly and in all likelihood, it is possible that people haven't reacted furiously to your innocent oblivion. While their response is a matter of choice, that's the receiver's or the respondent's prerogative. It's just like how you may choose to ignore it when someone verbally abuses you. Your reaction may be docile, but the act itself is still highly offensive. And if such occurrences repeat too often, the person at the receiving end may begin to feel alienated, excluded, or even targeted.

That is why you must be careful with gender identity and their respective pronouns. You may be unable to determine a person's gender from mere appearances. The world is a complex knit of interwoven diversity. It is this uniqueness of each individual that contributes to the overall welfare of any given unit, be it a team, an organization, a state, or even a continent. Everyone cannot dress, speak, and behave in a standard way. Each one is unique, and it is every human being's right to choose how they wish to live. People have a right to choose, and all should be respectful of their neighbors’ choices. Repeatedly addressing anyone by the wrong pronoun implies your insistence upon conformity, which violates their fundamental rights as human beings.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. - Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

But some professionals are still unaware that their pronoun choices may be offensive as they may not represent someone outside of the binary (male and female) appropriately. Thus, it is sapient to begin introductory conversations by also stating your pronoun, especially if you are cisgender. A cisgender person is one who continues to identify themselves with the gender they were assigned at birth. This way, you can lead by example and indirectly encourage the remainder of your crowd to mention their name and pronouns irrespective of gender. By doing so, you establish a safe and welcoming environment. Furthermore, proactively disclosing your pronoun communicates that you promote a work culture where gender is not automatically assumed, and binary gender status is not the only acceptable form. Here are some crucial aspects to consider as you learn about gender identity and appropriate pronouns usage to avoid offending people unknowingly.

1. Respect: Working professionals must understand that their colleagues do not need to earn respect. Just as we all cherish our rights, we must extend the same courtesy unto others. Without genuine regard, the seeds of disclusion and discrimination may spring forth complex and severe repercussions. If you need to educate your employees about this, consider a sensitization workshop to address it.

2. Literary Barriers: Many of your staff were probably educated in an era when such realizations were non-existent. Thus, they may be habituated to the grammar they studied during their early days. But, it is our duty to update the language we speak, especially in the workplace where we encounter various people.

  • Some obsolete salutations such as 'Ladies and Gentlemen' need to be eradicated from our vocabulary altogether. You can easily replace these with 'friends,' 'colleagues,' 'team,' 'everyone,' 'people,' and 'team members.'
  • Even while informally conversing with a colleague, we must make a conscious effort to avoid words such as ‘babe, bro, man, dude, sister.’ Some of these may be highly inappropriate on so many more levels.
  • Also, it’s time to expand your literary horizons to include the grammatical correctness of the pronoun ‘they’ used in the singular.
  • Similarly, consider replacing outdated honorifics such as Ms., Mr., Mrs. with Mx. implying you are addressing a person gender-neutrally.

3. Assumptions: It is unkind to make assumptions based on someone's voice, stature, appearance, or name. As mentioned earlier, people need not conform to a gender stereotype. Hence, it is always good to use neutral pronouns such as 'they,' 'them,' and 'their' initially. Unless someone explicitly advises you about addressing them, you must practice using gender-neutral tones and pronouns in your speech regularly.

4. Ascertain: If a person hasn't advised you, consider asking the person politely. But, don't reserve this step only for the times you are unsure. It may be offensive if you use these exclusively for people from the LGBTQA+ community. Therefore, either use gender-neutral terminology or make it a habit to ascertain the correct form of addressal. Please avoid asking your colleagues or visitors for their 'preference'; gender pronouns are not a matter of taste. Reassure them that your inquiry is only so that you may address them appropriately. You may ease them into it by following your question with suggestions on how they may address you.

Also Read: The HR in Human Resources

5. Transitions: Remember, as human beings, we are constantly evolving. There may be certain values that were instilled into you as a child. But, through independent reasoning, circumstance, learning, or even preference, those values may no longer resonate with you. The best example that almost everyone may relate to, is how most of us probably didn't abide by the careers we chose as toddlers. Many of us probably wished to become ice cream vendors, candy store salespersons, or even a genie! Everything is subject to change, and gender pronouns are not required to be absolute tags. An employee who earlier joined as a woman must be respectfully addressed as they deem fit after a gender transition or reassignment.

6. Privacy: Always ensure you respect your employees' or colleagues' privacy. Although it is better to ascertain their pronoun, it is rude to enquire about their transition or surgery. Just as we are naturally inclined to be respectful in conversations regarding marital status, parenthood, and medical history, we must extend the same courtesy to gender identities topics that are also personal in nature.

7. Faux-pas: To err is human! So, if you make a mistake, acknowledge your fault instead of attempting to brush it off. Then apologize. Don't become over-apologetic, making it awkward for everyone in the space. While apologizing, don't corner the person; they are not expected to disclose personal details. Instead, attempt to rectify your mistake without focusing on yourself. Remember, they aren’t obliged to console you.

8. Education: While addressing someone who is not cisgender, don't ask them questions about the entire LGBTQA+ community. They are not representatives for an entire population. It's just like, as a human being, you do not represent the whole species. Instead, you must approach your HR team to educate you or confide in a comrade outside work if you seek help and information.

Nowadays, companies are becoming sensitive towards LGBTQA+ individuals and the inequality they face in the workplace. Thus, many HR departments have been relentlessly pursuing the matter to create a safe working environment that embraces diversity. Your organization’s work culture is a reflection of your company’s image. Hence, you must ensure your HR not only creates but also implements policies that uphold the rights of minorities. These may include healthcare coverage for same-sex spouses, paternity leave, parental leave for adoptive or same-sex couples, and medical policies that include sex reassignment.

Sculpting an inclusive work culture requires staff to use appropriate language and pronouns. It is not just the morally and legally correct thing to do, but it greatly benefits your business. Employee productivity arising from a company's human resources drastically improves when employees feel safe, respected, and accepted. Conversely, the consequences of an exclusive, inappropriate, or disparate work culture can be severe. If your company requires some assistance to streamline diversity issues in the workplace, please give us a buzz. We’re always happy to help! Exela HR Solutions are experts in HR consulting and HR outsourcing services. By partnering with a team with over three decades of experience, you assure employees of your stand and support towards this cause.

DISCLAIMER: The information on this site is for general information purposes only and is not intended to serve as legal advice. Laws governing the subject matter may change quickly, and Exela cannot guarantee that all the information on this site is current or correct. Should you have specific legal questions about any of the information on this site, you should consult with a licensed attorney in your area.