They: A Pronoun At Work

“Recently, we hired an employee who has asked that we use the pronouns they/them,” she said in her letter. I get many questions behind the scenes – about candidate experience content, job postings, and sometimes more personal topics like using a they pronoun at work. Inevitably, when you share a little bit of yourself every week in a letter or blog, people start to share back. That’s my favorite part about writing – the mutual experience of it. 

What I didn’t realize when I started to write is that when you go that personal, something else happens – other people feel it, too. They can picture themselves in the story and live it. People want to tell their stories; the proof is in my inbox. 

Through those posts and our interactions, we build trust with each other – you building the confidence in me to share stories, while I learn why these stories matter. I know this: These stories matter most when I can help someone else love their work. 

So, a few weeks back, when an HR leader contacted me about pronouns at work, I was looking forward to not only sharing my perspective but finding out what materials were available. I was let down. There’s just not a lot of content about pronouns and work. 

That’s why I’m publishing my conversation with that HR leader this week. I know she isn’t alone in her questions, but she is the one brave enough to ask. For the others who are brave enough to Google, I hope they find this. 

This company is now taking steps forward. The response to my message shared a few ways – more inclusive restrooms, pronouns in emails, etc. But one part of the note truly inspired me. The HR director said, “I want to add that while a lot of this feels uncomfortable, it’s ok to live in discomfort. Comfortable doesn’t lead to change. I will follow through on your suggestions. Ignoring these things doesn’t feel ok to me.” 

She encouraged me to publish this because she also wants to be a part of the conversation that leads to more people and more companies taking action. I hope you will, too.

Please, comment with your suggestions and the resources I didn’t uncover. I know I’m just starting this conversation.

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Good morning, Katrina! 

I was listening to your most recent episode of the Drive-Thru HR podcast. You told a story about a speaker who uses the pronouns they/them. The company I work for is doing a good job of putting together some training on the topic of gender and pronouns, working with several employees who are gay, transgender, recently transitioned, etc. The specific area of the business that I support, however, doesn’t have much diversity. It’s primarily scientists and engineers. That said, we’ve been making strong efforts to focus on diversity. 

Recently we hired an employee who has asked that we use the pronouns they/them. While everybody has completely embraced this, which is super refreshing, everyone, including me, is having a tough time remembering. We correct each other all the time. But when we are the ones talking, we continue to use the pronoun associated with what we see (she/her). 

I (we) desperately want to move past that, so they feel honored and respected when we speak to them. Considering that the team is looking to me to help them, the best advice that I can give is to keep trying, be as mindful as possible, and to continue to correct one another kindly. I fear that this is slow going and that the employee will feel disrespected and eventually not feel welcome. That is certainly not what we want for that person. I think this is a real struggle. What advice might you share? Thanks for always being such an active voice in the HR community. 

Thanks for your thoughts

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My Response: They Pronoun at work

So, I should start this by saying I’m not an expert in pronouns or non binary language. I have had people misgender and use the wrong pronoun for me a million times, so that’s where my POV is from. I don’t know that’s the same, but I imagine it stings the same way; the empty feeling of being noticed and ignored all at once. 

I also want to say thank you. You want to do what’s right. You want to respect who they are and be mindful of your words. Not every company would take the time to do that. 

So my first piece of advice is to talk to them, the employee. Tell them you reached out to your community, and you wanted to reach out to them, too. Tell them you care that people get their pronoun right. Ask them if they know of resources. Bring some of your own and ask questions about initiatives. Find books. Talk to people in the community. 

Want to take a small first step? Try this, for example. Maybe everyone in the company puts their pronouns in their email signature. 

I think there’s also a step you can take when you hear someone using the wrong pronoun to set the tone with this team. In most cases, I see organizations casually brushing off incorrect pronouns or making a joke of it. This is where you step in. I’d encourage you to lead the way and point out why it matters so much. It’s the same as calling someone by the wrong name to use the wrong pronoun. So, when I hear someone use the wrong pronoun, that’s what I say. “Would you ever call someone the wrong name repeatedly? No? Ok, then get it right.”  

I think those are small steps, but I’d ask them. Ask them what they want to see and be the advocate who helps it become a reality. 

The bottom line for me? I think small steps are better than panicked silence. 

I have used the wrong pronoun before. I understand the panic of feeling like you disrespected someone. But good intentions only get us so far. This team has to adjust. It isn’t negotiable if you want them to stay with this company. 

Here are some additional resources and ideas I saw on Twitter

I’ll keep adding to this list as I find new thing. Don’t hesitate to post your additions in the comments.