Pronoun Primer for the Workplace

August 3, 2020

Discussions about pronoun use in the workplace are on the rise, right along with sticky interpersonal interactions to accompany those conversations – and potential liability. Given the current world environment, from COVID-19, racial conversations, and an upcoming presidential election, emotions and stress are running high across the board and conversation intensity is heating up. With these intense emotions as a backdrop, when employees communicate their pronoun preference, it’s critical that we ensure these communications are respected and remain productive.

Gender pronouns refer to people we are talking about and directly reference that person’s gender identity. Gender identity is an internal expression which cannot necessarily be determined just by looking at a person and is individual to that person. Given that these decisions are individual and uniquely personal, there can be a tendency at times by staff members to believe that their own way of seeing the world is the “right way” or “the only way”. When this happens, conversations can escalate into less than productive discussions and can divide us unnecessarily. In our society, we often categorize gender into traditional male or female gender norms and some employees may struggle when faced with coworkers who have expressed a gender identity which differs from how the employee’s expression is “read” by others. This can lead to workplace conflict, hurt feelings, and even liability.

Employers can proactively address these problems by offering training and open-minded conversation around this topic. Many employees may have had little, or no, exposure to the concept of gender-expansive terms and may struggle with the concept simply out of a lack of understanding. What most people can understand, is the desire to be heard and treated with respect. Ask employees to approach each other with an open mind and remind them of your expectation that an employee’s expressed gender pronoun will be used consistently. Acknowledge that there may be slips if an employee is making a change, especially if this is a long time coworker, but if the use of the wrong pronoun is not just an occasional slip and is deliberate, or used as an attempt to demean, harass, humiliate, or belittle, that is an unacceptable behavior and a violation of the law (and likely the employer’s policy as well).

It’s important to note that Washington law specifically prohibits the misuse of an individuals’ preferred name, form of address, or gender-related pronoun (except on legally mandated documentation if the individual has not officially obtained a name change). As a result, an employer should keep a careful watch on employee failure to adhere to an employee’s preferred pronouns. WAC 162-32-040.

Some additional best practices to keep in mind:

  • Require respectful communication by all parties (and make sure this is consistent with your supervisors as well).
  • Train employees about the differences in pronouns such as expansive language (they/them) as well as specific language (he/she, him/her), and that gender identity and pronoun preference may not be obvious from what we see on the outside, because it is an internal sense of one’s own gender. Some employees may request non-gendered language such as Mx. in the place of Ms.
  • Provide context and education. Help employees understand what it can symbolize or mean to an employee to be misgendered, and how hurtful it can be to that individual. Nothing is more personal to each of us than the way in which people refer to us through our name and pronouns. Using a person’s chosen name and desired pronoun is a form of mutual respect and basic courtesy. Everyone deserves to have their self-ascribed name and pronouns respected in the workplace, whether those choices are gendered or expansive.
  • Let employees know how to make their preferred form of address known and that you will support that communication and expect other employees to do so as well.
  • Where the preferred pronoun is not used by an employee, address this promptly. If the usage is inadvertent, document the conversation. However, if the misuse is repeated or intentional this may constitute unlawful harassment and/or discrimination and should be handled as such.