Diversity & Inclusion, Learning & Development

Building Belonging: Pronouns at Work

A critical part of helping people thrive at work is creating a safe space to work. Even in supportive environments, many transgender and gender non-conforming people can still expect uncomfortable conversations as they come out over and over again, sometimes every day. In fact, 90% of LGBTQ workers have reported being harassed at some point at work.

Belonging at work doesn’t just happen after the hire. It starts during the candidate experience, and small tweaks can lead to more inclusive communication for everyone. Think about it. You probably know to say things like “salesperson” instead of “salesman,” there are plenty of other ways gendered language creeps into our everyday speech.

We spoke with Katrina Kibben, CEO and Founder of Three Ears Media, to learn how to truly build belonging in the workplace, especially in regards to using people’s pronouns correctly.

“I’m not a pronoun expert. I’m a trans and nonbinary executive who has lived this life,” Kibben says. “I’m a job post expert, but I’ve realized through that work that we cannot create inclusive candidate experiences—we cannot create great job postings—if the rest of the candidate experience does not include everyone.”

The Importance of Pronouns

To start building an inclusive workplace, HR leaders must first understand what pronouns are and why they’re important.

“A pronoun replaces a noun in a sentence. That’s the English lesson part of this, but there’s a history lesson here too,” Kibben says. Nonbinary and trans people have existed long before today’s current gender binary identities every did.

“We haven’t often been socially trained to use ‘them’ in reference to who people are,” they say. While there are countless pronouns in addition to he/him, she/her, and they/them, there is no such thing as “preferred” pronouns. Pronouns refer to how people want to be spoke to, and that’s far bigger than a preference. Pronouns, though a small part of sentence, carry a lot of meeting.

“I want you to understand that [pronouns] mean something different to every single person. They are special and unique, and they are how we identify how we feel in this world.”

As Kibben explained, most of the world has been socialized to understand the gender as a binary with just two sets of pronouns. “Mistakes are kind of inevitable. We’re rewiring our brains. We’re learning something new.”

That said, if you mess up someone’s pronouns in person, Kibben recommends the following:

  • Don’t apologize profusely but do correct yourself in real time.
  • Don’t panic but do keep the conversation moving.
  • Don’t ignore it but do practice the correct pronouns.

In the case that you use the incorrect pronouns, give yourself the chance to practice and get it right. Kibben recommends making three quick corrections in your mind using the right pronouns. For example, “They are compassionate. They are a hard worker. I like their shirt.”

Candidate Experiences and Active Allies

Many candidates are looking for companies whose content they can connect with. In the same regard, they want “to be able to know you care about pronouns, to know that they would be respected at work. And this crosses these binaries: allies as well as queer people are standing up to say, ‘I want to see inclusive candidate experiences.’”

As such, every part of the candidate experience should be inclusive. Starting at the search engine discoverable job posting, to the career website, to social media, and to the actually application process, companies need to be intentional, thoughtful, and considerate when developing content.

“[Recruiters] do not want people who are highly qualified opting out because they looked into one of these areas and they were not able to distil your value of care and safety,” Kibben says.

How to Create Inclusive Experiences

So, how can business create inclusive experiences?

Social Media: Kibben recommends including pronouns in the social media profiles of individual employees—a corporate account does not need pronouns, unless the person managing it identified by name.

Email Signatures: HR teams should encourage employees to add pronouns to their email signatures. The key in the process is to educate employees on what pronouns are and why they’re important. Without this education and understand, these efforts toward inclusivity don’t carry weight.

Video Calls: Virtual meetings are an excellent opportunity to display allyship and values without having to explicitly state it. Leaders can include flags, objects, or even virtual backgrounds in video calls to help display their support and make candidates feel like they belong.

Job Posts: HR teams should seek to make job postings as inclusive and unbiased as possible—desired candidate traits should be qualified instead of quantified. For a deeper dive into how to accomplish this, check out one of our earlier article.

Application Process: Beyond having an unbiased job post and an Equal Employment Opportunity statement on the careers site, businesses should create a dedicated DEI page and include pronouns on the application. Be sure to offer the option not to disclose pronouns. If a person opts to not disclose, be sure to continuously ask them how to refer to them. To go the extra mile, HR leaders can create inclusive FAQ content that covers basic questions like the typical hiring timeline to answering, “Why do people stay at this company?”

Inclusive Introductions: “We cannot create this digital experience and then have it not translate into the candidate’s experience once they’re past the digital side. We have to have inclusive conversations when people walk in,” Kibben says.

Train your team to never assume people’s pronouns. An easy, inclusive introduction is, “Hi! My name is Katrina Kibben. My pronouns are they/them. How should I refer to you?” While some people may not feel safe disclosing their pronouns in their application, this question allows them to feel safe to disclose whatever they are comfortable with.

Office Bathrooms: Consider what gender-neutral options you have in your office. If there are gender-neutral options available, be sure to communicate where they are to your employees. If your office isn’t equipped with them, make plans to develop gender-neutral options.

Takeaway for Employers

Being consistent and thorough is essential in the development of an inclusive work culture. Overall, successful DEI efforts allow people to connect. “We can inspire and create loving spaces where people can truly belong,” Kibben says. “No one is thriving at work if they never feel that they could belong or that they are seen.”

To learn more about building belonging and pronouns in the workplace, check out our on-demand seminar.

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