Making all employees feel welcome should be a top priority for HR. Studies show that those who feel a sense of belonging at work can be more engaged, productive and simply do better work.
One easy way to become more inclusive is to promote the use of inclusive pronouns and emphasize their importance. But it’s not as simple as putting your preferred pronouns in your email signature and calling it a day.
Impactful initiatives need to go far beyond the surface. Your people not only need to understand how to use pronouns correctly, but why it’s important to do so.
Luckily, we’ve got your essential pronoun guide to support LGBTQIA+ employees and help educate others to create a true culture of inclusion.
Pronouns: The basics
First things first: What exactly are gender pronouns?
Simply put, they’re “words that a person uses to describe themselves or would like others to describe them,” according to the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion. Those in the LGBTQIA+ community may change their pronouns to reflect their gender identity, especially those in the non-binary and trans communities.
And using different pronouns is becoming more common, with one in four Americans reporting that they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns.
Using inclusive language in the workplace
Respecting pronouns at work and using inclusive language can lead to happier, more engaged workers.
Even if you don’t have an employee who has disclosed their gender identity or pronouns, that doesn’t mean that the practice of inclusive language and allyship should be put on the backburner.
Some may hesitate to share their pronouns or gender identity due to fear of discrimination; in fact, resumes including “they/them” pronouns are more likely to be overlooked, according to a recent report from Business.com, so it’s important to practice using inclusive language all the time, not just around those who are LGBTQIA+.
- Use “team” or “folks” when addressing a group of people instead of “ladies and gentlemen” or other gendered language
- Swap “maternity leave” or “paternity leave” with “parental leave”
- Replace honorifics like Ms., Mrs. or Mr. with the gender-neutral “Mx.”, and
- Say “partner” or “spouse” instead of gendered language like husband or wife.
5 best practices for inclusivity
It’s important to cultivate a culture of inclusivity and allyship to ensure that no one has to think twice about using inclusive language and respecting pronouns – it’s just part of the company culture.
“Your actions must go beyond the ‘checklist’ approach and only doing the minimum and what is easy,” says Angie Freeman, DEI speaker and program manager for events and partnerships at the University of Michigan.
Here are some best practices to practice what you preach when it comes to inclusivity.
Address your biases. Before you can get everyone else on board, you need to self-reflect. “If you truly want to be transformative, you have to do something about your own feelings, your internalized homophobia and everything else,” says Kat Kibben, CEO and founder of Three Ears Media. “And then figure out the plan from a very human place of, ‘If this were my child, how would I want them to be treated?’”
Don’t be a bystander. Stand up and speak up for LGBTQIA+ colleagues, even if they’re not in the room. “Bystander intervention is effective when the person being harmed is present, and arguably, even more effective when the person being harmed is not present,” says Freeman. “It shows a certain level of commitment and standardization for our inclusion efforts and values.”
Here’s a real-life example from Freeman: “During a virtual meeting with several colleagues, I was misgendered by a supervisor and my supportive colleague spoke up immediately and said, ‘Just to remind you, Angie uses they/them pronouns.’ I was taken aback and pleasantly surprised by the immediacy of the correction and seriousness that my supportive colleague had taken. This is what solidarity looks and feels like – harmful to all and beneficial to all.”
Communicate openly. If an employee misgenders a colleague, use the opportunity to start an open conversation and get to the root of the problem. However, Kibben suggests keeping the conversation curious and open-minded, not accusatory. Consider asking something like, “What did you mean by that? They’ve told you their pronouns, and you’re using this pronoun. Why?” to start a dialogue.
Prioritize continuous learning. Education shouldn’t be one-and-done – and shouldn’t be prioritized exclusively during Pride Month. “[One-and-done pronoun education] is entertainment. It’s not education. It’s education for that group. And then 50% of your staff turns over, and it doesn’t matter anymore,” says Kibben. Instead, consider annual training or multiple learning opportunities.
Train hiring managers. An inclusive recruiting experience, such as a hiring manager who shares their pronouns at the start of the conversation, can start new LGBTQIA+ hires off on the right foot and reduces the fear associated with disclosing their gender identity or pronouns. “We need to retrain on how we introduce ourselves to others up to and including your external vendors so that we start from a place of showing instead of telling people that you’re inclusive,” says Kibben.
What to do if it goes south
With inclusivity measures, things may not always go the way you planned — and that can be a good thing.
“…[Mistakes are] where growth happens and where social justice extends beyond the simple thought of everyone valuing each other’s identities,” says Freeman. “This is not easy; most people intend well and want to seem woke, but are not willing to put in the work, specifically the self-work.”
Here are three steps to take when things don’t go the way you planned:
- Learn from those who know it best: Chances are, the mistake being made is not malicious; it’s simply a lack of education. And there’s no better education than seeking out real-life experiences and stories. “[The best way to educate yourself] is not some formal training. It’s to be in society and in life with people who are living as who they are,” says Kibben.
- Don’t overcompensate with apologies: It can be tempting to apologize profusely when you misgender someone or make a similar mistake, but that isn’t always the best solution. “When you say you’re sorry, what you’re really saying is feel bad for me when you just made someone else feel bad,” says Kibben. “I know you’re sorry, but just do it differently. And […] keep moving.”
- Commit to doing better — and then actually do it: “Apologies are great, but actions are where we’re trying to get to,” says Kibben. If you commit to doing better, it’s important to be proactive and take the steps to get there.
“One pitfall to avoid is defending your choice of words after someone has provided you with feedback on considering using other words instead,” says Freeman. “It’s about respecting the person in front of you and those around you regardless of if you agree or disagree.”