Diversity & Inclusion, Learning & Development

The Great Pronoun Debate and Its Practical Implications

As society and our collective consciousness have come to more fully understand and appreciate the varied gender identities of those around us, an ongoing debate has emerged regarding the use of pronouns. Advocates for gender rights have argued that the traditional binary he/she paradigm leaves many people out and forced others into a box they don’t feel they fit into.

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Many companies have begun encouraging employees to put their preferred pronouns into their e-mail signature blocks and/or company profiles. The idea is that this gives employees the power to define their own gender identity while making it easier for their colleagues to know how to refer to them.

Society’s attitudes toward gender identity are continuously evolving, and the practice of specifying one’s pronouns is relatively new. This means many employers, managers, and employees are unsure of whether or how to encourage this practice. In this feature, we discuss some factors to consider in implementing a policy around pronouns, including input from industry experts.

Understanding the Goal

Some companies may be asking what all the fuss about pronouns is in the first place. Moreover, even if an employee prefers to be identified with one pronoun versus another, can’t that employee simply tell people directly? Why should people need to identify their preferred pronouns just to accommodate a few exceptions?

The issue boils down to inclusion and belonging. Of course, we should all be respectful of others and their identities. And that, of course, does mean calling people by their preferred pronouns. With respect to making that identification in an e-mail signature block, it’s a means of giving colleagues that information without having to have a potentially awkward conversation in person over and over again.

Employers would be foolish to discount the value of an inclusive workplace. Employees who feel like they are accepted and belong are going to be more engaged, more productive, better brand ambassadors, and easier to retain than those who feel like outsiders in an environment in which they spend half their waking hours.

However, as we’ll discuss in more detail below, making a pronoun declaration mandatory may pose some important challenges. Still, allowing and (gently) encouraging the practice can go a long way toward building a more inclusive and effective organization.

Explain the Rationale

This really goes for virtually any policy, but it’s especially important for sensitive and relatively new issues. Simply mandating, requesting, or encouraging employees to add their preferred pronouns to their signature block or employee profile will undoubtedly generate pushback, misunderstanding, and resentment. And explaining the new policy in a mass e-mail doesn’t really cut it either.

“Employees shouldn’t be mandated to add their pronouns to their signature block,” says Heidi Duss, founder of Culturescape and an LGBTQ+ consultant. “Rather, everyone should be educated on the importance of why pronouns matter and what their role as an ally means. Requiring employees to do this, if they are not ready and/or educated on the importance, can lead to further harm to the LGBTQ+ community. Furthermore, if there is not education around the ‘why,’ it leads to another example of performative allyship – ‘showing’ they are doing the ‘right’ thing but have no idea why it matters.”

Encouraging Pronouns Could Still Leave People Feeling Left Out

The whole idea behind encouraging employees to share their preferred pronouns is to be more inclusive. However, companies should be careful not to put too much pressure on employees to participate. Just because workers decline to share their preferred pronouns doesn’t mean they’re opposed to the policy. It could be because they haven’t decided what their preferred pronouns are.

“To put it simply, providing one’s pronouns are a personal choice,” says Sharon van Donkelaar, CMO at Expandi. “Personally, I do not like to add pronouns to my introductions. This is not because I don’t believe in the practice—I am grateful to people who would add theirs in order to address them properly. My preference is simply because I am still discovering my own gender, and perhaps this is the same of many people too. We have to respect people’s journeys. Perhaps the person who is pushing back is simply conservative and doesn’t believe in pronouns. This understanding should be their journey too.”

van Donkelaar raises a great point about inclusiveness. By making policies such as the declaration of preferred pronouns mandatory, the effort to be more inclusive of one group can end up making another group feel excluded.

Legal Questions

It’s a sign of our litigious society that the potential for legal consequences surrounding a pronoun policy is one of the first things to come to mind for many employers, so we thought we’d share some input on this point, as well.

Hugh Murray, a partner in McCarter & English’s Labor & Employment practice in Hartford, Connecticut, offered his thoughts on the subject. There are, he suggests, a few different approaches an organization might take:

  1. Requiring employees to specify pronoun preferences
  2. Allowing the option to specify pronoun preferences
  3. Prohibiting the practice

“There may be good reasons, that differ across industries, for any of these three responses,” he says. Murray believes that, from a legal point of view, there is little risk in any of the approaches he identified.

“An organization’s interest in a uniform look and feel for its outward facing communication style may justify either mandating or prohibiting pronoun designation,” he says. “If an employee feels strongly that they wish to include such a designation (where it is prohibited), or strongly resists such a designation (where it is mandated), then an employer or administrator should discuss the issue and determine whether to make an exception to its policy.”

Murray says that while no disability or religious issue immediately comes to mind for him that would prevent someone from self-designating a preferred set of pronouns, in the event one did arise, the organization should consider whether it can accommodate the issue.

To some, the debate over including pronouns in one’s signature block might seem like an example of liberal culture being rammed down their throats or just another far-flung and minor battlefield in a widespread culture war. But to those who have struggled with gender identity, encouraging the practice can help make them feel more comfortable with their colleagues and encourage use of their preferred pronouns without needing to explain and correct people repeatedly.

There are multiple reasons companies should be very wary of making the practice mandatory. However, through education and understanding, companies may be surprised to find more widespread support for and participation in such an optional policy than they expected.