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Everything you need to know about gender pronouns at work

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It is increasingly common for professionals of all stripes to include a line in their digital signatures, below their name or title, indicating what gender pronouns they use. That may read something like "she/her/hers" or "they/them/theirs," and specifies how an individual wants to be addressed other than by their name. 

For some people who are gender nonbinary, or transgender, being misgendered can cause discomfort and anxiety.

"Being misgendered is a dehumanizing experience: it's being reminded again and again that you don't exist as your gender in other peoples' eyes," said Camy Seitz-Cherner, a co-founder of a tutoring cooperative who uses the pronouns "they/them."

Advocates stress how important it is that companies develop policies around personal pronoun use as part of their inclusion efforts, in part so LGBTQ people feel safe at work.

More simply, it's a matter of respecting everyone in the workplace.

"It's good manners and politeness — that's the moral argument," said Riki Wilchins, an activist and founder of TrueEquity, an organization that specializes in training gender and race in the workplace.

It's also good for business and recruitment efforts, experts said. Creating a safe and inclusive workplace allows for employees to be more productive and creative.

"The other argument is it's got good business value. Diverse workforces are places people want to work, and there is good data that shows diverse teams do better," Wilchins added. "People do not want to be in workplaces where it's OK to discriminate against some people."

Equal treatment 

In the age of changing gender norms, experts advise companies to develop and enforce policies that are inclusive of LGBTQ people, including trangsgender and gender-nonconforming employees. Discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual orientation and sexual identity is illegal, and refusing to respect an individual's pronoun choices could be viewed as discriminatory. 

"Like everything else in the employment arena, employers have a risk of liability when they act in a discriminatory manner," said Helen Rella, a New York-based employment attorney at Wilk Auslander. "That doesn't change whether we're talking about age discrimination or sexual orientation. It's the same analysis."

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That said, an employer can prohibit workers from including their pronouns in their email signatures, but only if the policy is enforced consistently across the company. 

"The company can say company policy is that emails do not have identifier attached to them. If a policy is implemented across the board, it makes it more difficult to claim an employer acted in discriminatory manner," Rella explained.

Supervisors set the tone 

North Carolina workplace attorney Kelly Hughes of Ogletree Deakins acknowledges that the introduction of new pronouns and honorifics, like the singular they/them/theirs and Mx. instead of Mr. or Mrs., can create confusion in the workplace. 

"You need to have policies in place so you can train on those policies, and they need to be broad and cover inclusive terminology, allow restroom usage consistent with gender identity, and gender neutral dress codes," she said. "There are areas you can show support and inclusivity."

With respect to pronouns, Hughes recommends that employers permit, but do not require, workers to include their pronouns in their email signatures. 

"Particularly if company executives want to include pronouns in their signatures, it's a helpful way of signaling inclusivity," she said. "But I think it's really something that at this point should be optional because if you require your employees to disclose pronouns, it can have an adverse effect on them. They can be gender fluid or might not be comfortable disclosing their pronouns at that time."

"What can I do to help?"

Lily Zheng, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant and author of "Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination," has advice on how employers can start building a transgender-inclusive workplace.

"First, talk candidly and casually about trans issues to demonstrate you have mastery of them. If the topic comes up in conversation, casually show you know how to use they/them pronouns," they said. "Many workplaces don't do these things until they know there is a trans person inside the workplace, which I think is backward."

If you instead build a workplace that's inherently transgender-inclusive, trans employees — or candidates — will know your workplace cares.  

"Say, I want to make sure you feel respected at work, what can I do to help. Whatever they tell you to do is what you should do," Zheng said. 

Seitz-Cherner, of the tutoring collective, said it is incumbent upon companies to support transgender and gender non-binary employees by educating their colleagues around proper pronoun usage. 

"Respecting people's pronouns is a matter of practice and behavior change; HR departments can offer coaching, incentives and accountability systems to employees who want to change but struggle, so that transgender employees aren't continuously misgendered, minimized or harassed in their workplaces," she said. 

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