Why Pronouns Matter When Building an Equitable Culture

October 18, 2023・5 mins read
Why Pronouns Matter When Building an Equitable Culture

Creating a culture that embraces diversity, promotes equity and inclusion is critical to a company’s success. It provides a sense of belonging to the employees and encourages them to bring their authentic self to work, leading to higher engagement and boosting employee morale. Over the last few years, many employers have implemented diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEI&B) programs emphasizing a work force that includes a wide variety of individuals based on race, gender, and sexual orientation, among other demographics.

In order to build an equitable culture, it is important to meet the needs of your diverse workforce. It starts with understanding the unique needs of your employees and addressing them with careful consideration. Part of meeting an individual’s unique needs is using the correct pronoun to address them.

What’s in a Pronoun

A pronoun is used instead of a noun or a noun phrase. Gender pronouns such as “he/him/his” and “she/her/hers” refer to people that you are talking about. Gender pronouns are the way that we constantly refer to each other’s gender identityexcept we often don’t think a whole lot about them.

Usually we interpret or “read” a person’s gender based on their outward appearance and expression, and “assign” a pronoun. But our reading may not be a correct interpretation of the person’s gender identity. Because gender identity is internalan internal sense of one’s own genderwe don’t necessarily know a person’s correct gender pronoun by looking at them.

Additionally, a person may identify as genderfluid or genderqueer and may not identify along the binary of either male or female (e.g., “him” or “her”). Some people identify as both masculine and feminine, or neither. A genderqueer or non-binary identified person may prefer a gender-neutral pronoun such as “they/them.”

Why is it Important to Use the Correct Pronoun?

Using the pronouns employees prefer is more than common courtesy; it helps avoid discrimination claims. Federal law on the subject is based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which expressly prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The US Supreme Court has held that Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex also bans any employment discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Many states also explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination laws.

What You Need to Do:

To create an inclusive workplace, you need to start by educating yourself on this topic. In addition, you may want to incorporate the following:

  • Employee choice is important, make yourself aware of that.
  • Educate and communicate to your line managers on your employee’s preference of pronoun.
  • Review, and, if necessary, revise your dress and grooming standards.
  • Check employment applications to eliminate the “gender box” from the area that applicants are required to complete.
  • Be proactive—create a checklist of these items so that when the issue arises, you are well equipped to handle it.
  • Incorporate the topic of pronoun choice in your harassment prevention training.

Tips to Starting the Pronoun Conversation:

  • Invite others to share their preferred pronoun by sharing your pronoun. For example, “As we start the interview it will be important for me to share my preferred pronoun with you to help you understand how to respond to me. My preferred pronoun is she/her/hers.”
  • Create rules of engagement that align with the identification of pronouns. For example, during meetings all participants share their preferred pronoun to create a respectful and inclusive environment that encourages collaboration.
  • Create pronoun awareness. Create an intentional space for your employees to learn about pronouns. Non-binary pronouns can be confusing, it’s important to understand how pronouns may be used and how pronouns can change.
  • An easy way for companies to introduce gender pronouns into the conversation is to add them to email signatures.

Implementing a DEI&B program requires commitment from the leadership team. Educating and emphasizing the correct use of pronouns supports DE&I initiatives and reinforces a culture of belonging in the workplace. Implementing the best practices above and starting the conversations are key steps to creating a high performing culture that embraces diversity and promotes a sense of belonging.

We encourage you to join TriNet’s DEI Series and familiarize yourself with this very crucial topic.

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