Pronouns: Creating Safe Spaces

I was on Frenchmen Street, hanging out with three local HR execs. They each grew up in New Orleans and knew every local haunt. If you know anyone from New Orleans, you know that means they also had seven stories to tell about every single bar.

I was having the time of my life. The music. The food. Plenty of drinks, too. It is New Orleans after all.

After a few jokes and a few more rum punches, I went to the bathroom. It was down a dark hallway. If you’ve been in a bathroom in a dimly lit bar, you can imagine it. Dirty. Stickers all over the walls. Graffiti that says things I won’t repeat here.

As I turned into the women’s bathroom, I felt hands on both of my shoulders and a quick jerk. “Wrong bathroom,” I heard as I fell backward into the arms of a huge man. It was the bouncer.

I didn’t know what to say or do. The shock of having someone grab me was setting in as I realized I was being misgendered. The bouncer thought I was a man creeping into the women’s bathroom.

I think what I said next was just “no.” The panicked look on his face said everything. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “All I saw was your hair. I’m so sorry,” he repeated over and over. I assured him it was OK.

As I closed the stall door, I noticed my hands shaking. Then my shoulders started to shake. Even with all the alcohol in my system, I was having a trauma reaction. I didn’t feel safe in that bathroom or anywhere at that moment.

Ironically, just earlier that day, I spoke to local HR leaders about the LGBT community and being gay at work. I tried to explain what it feels like to be the only one and be scared of people discovering your life. I was having a panic attack in the bathroom because of the same type of trauma I presented.

Trigger Point: Misgendering is Trauma

That’s what most people don’t realize. It’s traumatic to be misgendered if you get physically assaulted in the process or not. Whether that means the wrong pleasantries at a restaurant (hello, sir!) or the wrong pronouns at work, these are moments you can’t easily forget. Fight or flight kicks in.

What do I do? Where do I go? Do they even see me?

Now try to exist at work with that flooding stream of consciousness. How can you survive or thrive in a place where people don’t even see you?

On the other side, straight allies are starting to ask “how do I help?” I know this conversation is coming up more at work because I’m being asked about it so often. People want to know my perspective on pronouns and how to be more accepting. They want to know small and big ways they can create safer spaces. It started a few months back with a call from a friend about pronouns at work.

I love those calls, by the way. Always call me when you have questions about how to make the world a little better. I want to help. Making this planet a little more human and humane for the people around you will always be at the top of my list.

Safe space: ALLY Dos and Don’ts for Pronouns at work

In all of these interactions, I’ve created a bit of a do-this, not-that. I don’t pretend to know everything about this or the lived experience. I hope you’ll take a chance to educate me in the comments if you have something to add or I missed something significant to you.

Do This:

  • Don’t assume your workplace is safe. Ask first: Do you feel safe? It’s an important preliminary question.
  • Use gender-neutral language first. Sir and Ma’am aren’t polite when you’re misgendering someone. I’ll see the Southerners in the comments. I grew up there. I know.
  • Take the lead. Lead meetings by announcing your pronouns. Set a tone of acceptance.
  • Correct people when they use the wrong pronouns.
  • Add your pronouns to your email signature.
  • Update your zoom name with your pronouns—the same concept.
  • Design your office. For example, add a pride flag. You can subtly show your support all the time.
  • Read books. Educate yourself about other lives.

Don’t do this:

  • Ask weird questions about relationships or private parts. It’s not OK with anyone else.
  • Don’t assume it’s binary. It’s not just he or she anymore. Don’t write that in your job postings or say it anywhere else.
  • Don’t make jokes about pronouns. Grammar jokes are not funny in the context of someone’s life.
  • Don’t be pushy. If someone doesn’t want to answer your questions, let them be.

Have something to add?

I hope you won’t hesitate to comment or reach out privately to make this more of a conversation. Let’s make the world a little more accepting of (and for) each other.

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LGBT and Diversity recruiting

Kat Kibben View All →

Kat Kibben [they/them] is a keynote speaker, writing expert, and LGBTQIA+ advocate who teaches hiring teams how to write inclusive job postings that will get the right person to apply faster.

Before founding Three Ears Media, Katrina was a CMO, Technical Copywriter, and Managing Editor for leading companies like Monster,, and Randstad Worldwide. With 15+ years of recruitment marketing and training experience, Katrina knows how to turn talented recruiting teams into talented writers who write for people, not about work.

Today, Katrina is frequently featured as an HR and recruiting expert in publications like The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Forbes. They’ve been named to numerous lists, including LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Job Search & Careers. When not speaking, writing, or training, you’ll find Katrina traveling the country in their van or spending some much needed downtime with the dogs that inspired the name Three Ears Media.

2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Hi Katrina,

    This is resonating for me. I recently had an employee work with me to ensure that their new legal name was reflected on all company information. It was a frustrating and time consuming process for them and I felt responsible on behalf of my employer. We use many binary systems and they do not necessarily talk to one another.

    I was recently able to adjust our candidate application process to include “non-binary” as a gender option. Even though I was able to adjust our ATS, our HRIS system is still binary. If we want to respect a non-binary employee’s gender, our best solution is to categorize them as “unidentified” which doesn’t feel right either.

    I look forward to continued dialogues in the HR community about how we can be respectful of gender. Thank you so much for sharing your vulnerability with us.

    If there are suggestions for what options should appear in the drop down when an employee identifies a gender, I am interested in recommendations!

    Sarah Gasparini

  2. I instantly printed a rainbow picture to decorate my office 🌈 Don’t know why I never thought of it before. Also when interviewing please don’t assume the other one is married to someone of the opposite sex.

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