As people return to the office, some after a year and a half of remote working, they’re contending with a new pandemic phenomenon: getting to know their co-workers in real life.
Sure, people have communicated over Slack and email, and made small talk while waiting for conference calls to start. They’ve even joined happy hours over Zoom (however begrudgingly). But a growing number of people have co-workers they’ve never met in person.
That’s bound to create some awkwardness, at least initially. Interacting in person is a whole different experience from chatting on Slack. And if a new co-worker seems like they may be gender-nonconforming, there might be some uneasiness about how to ask them what their pronouns are.
But it’s vital to establish early on that your workplace is an atmosphere where people’s pronouns and identities are respected, says Scott Turner Schofield, an educator and founder of Speaking of Transgender, a training and consulting company.
“Pronouns are the first place where we show respect for another person’s gender by affirming it,” he tells HuffPost. “For trans and nonbinary folks, it’s usually the first place we experience unintentional invalidation or outright disrespect.”
“Do you want your workplace to be a respectful and validating place for everyone who works there?” he said. “Then you have to start with the bare minimum of pronouns.”
Everyone in a workplace (or outside of one, for that matter) deserves to have their names and pronouns respected, whether they use gender-expansive pronouns like they/them/theirs or gendered terms like he/him/his or she/her/hers.
Since cultural change happens at the top, it’s important that managers and bosses take the lead here, Turner Schofield says.
“In office meetings with new people, it’s just good, inclusive leadership to share your pronouns – even if you think they should be obvious,” he says.
If you’re a workplace leader, Turner Schofield said to start those first few in-office meetings by introducing yourself – including your title as well as your pronouns – and then jump right into the agenda.
For instance: “Hi everyone, I’m Scott, I’m an executive producer on this film, I use ‘he’ or ‘they’ pronouns – feel free to use either – and we need to go over press strategy today.”
Then get down to business, like it’s no big thing, Turner Schofield said.
Want to avoid a Michael Scott-esque faux pas? Don’t make it weird by specifically asking the new co-worker to share their pronouns in front of everyone, says Jaime Klein, CEO of Inspire Human Resources.
“You do not want to put the onus on the person who does not identify as male or female here,” she says. “Instead, you want there to be an acceptance and expectation for everyone to share their pronouns, and to normalise the process starting from the top.”
If you’re a non-managerial staff member, what are some steps you can take to cultivate a sense of inclusiveness in your office? Below, experts like Klein and Turner Schofield share five office-tested tips.
Make things simple and put your pronouns in your email signature.
If your company culture is one where conversations about pronouns are encouraged, then great – you’re two steps ahead here. But if you’re uncertain, you can lead the way simply by putting your pronouns in your email signature.
“My firm always suggests to clients that they include pronouns in their email signatures – for instance, [your name] (she/her/hers),” Klein says. “This way, there is never a question and pronouns are something that are normalized for everyone.”
Businesses can also include language in their employee handbooks about why pronouns are important, and ideally provide an office signature template, Turner Schofield says.
Keep the section simple and direct, he said. Something like:
Sharing the pronouns that people call you every day (like he or she) creates a more equal playing field in our workplace for folks who need to remind everyone of what pronouns they want to be called (like they, and also she or he). We do not require it, but it is appreciated as a gesture of mutual respect and inclusivity.
Bring up your pronouns – but don’t prod someone else to do the same.
Feel free to casually share your name and pronouns in those early in-person conversations, but don’t create a situation where your new co-worker feels pressured to do so.
“It becomes complicated when you take into consideration that not everyone feels in a good place with their pronoun options or their process with their pronouns,” says Jesse Kahn, a sex therapist and director at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City. “Also, sometimes it can feel like being outed and can cause a lot of anxiety.”
If you’re in the dark, don’t forget, you can always just call someone by their name. Easy peasy.
Don’t ask someone about their “preferred” pronouns.
Be mindful of your word choices. A person’s pronouns aren’t “preferred” – they’re just the right pronouns that should always be used, says James Vining, a psychotherapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center.
“Pronouns aren’t a taste test or musical genre. It’s a symbol of your identity,” he says. “You wouldn’t ask someone to identify you as the name they prefer; you expect them to use the name you’ve shared with them. For instance, if someone introduces themselves as Terry, it wouldn’t be appropriate or respectful to say, ‘So, Terence is cool, right?’”
Don’t freak out if you get someone’s pronouns wrong. Just apologise and get it right next time.
What should you do if you accidentally use the wrong pronouns when referring to someone? The best practice when it comes to misgendering is to acknowledge the mistake briefly and allow the conversation to move on naturally, says Naya Herman, a therapist at Kip Therapy in New York who uses they/them pronouns.
“Common misconceptions around how to respond after misgendering someone often lead to reactive responses, like apologizing profusely, getting upset that they ‘have to learn new pronouns,’ or otherwise refusing to respect someone’s pronouns because of their own personal ideologies,” Herman tells HuffPost.
Understandably, these outsized reactions can be uncomfortable and invalidating for the person on the receiving end. If you overhear something like this happening, jump in and try to smooth things over.
“If a colleague notices that someone has been misgendered, they can be an ally by stating the correct pronoun and following up with that person later if there is resistance,” Herman says.
Make sure your workplace’s inclusivity goes beyond “What are your pronouns?”
Beyond pronouns, gender-inclusive language and policies should be used generally at work to communicate an affirming environment, Herman says.
“For example, people should steer clear of language like ‘ladies and gentlemen’ or ‘he or she’ when referring to a group at large, and provide gender-neutral bathrooms and trans-affirming health care,” they says.
These workplace considerations can help counter the range of invalidating and exhausting microaggressions that trans, nonbinary and gender-diverse people deal with daily, at the office and elsewhere.
“Many people experience rejection in several other areas of their life (family, friends, romantic relationships, in public generally) and it’s important to understand how easily experiences of rejection are internalised when it feels like they’re coming at you from all angles,” Herman says.
Not only do microaggressions like misgendering undermine a person’s ability to be productive at work, these cumulative interactions can add up to much greater distress, according to Herman.
“Most people depend on their work for survival because of income and health care, so most people can’t simply quit because of a pathogenic work environment,” they says.
Give some thought to how accommodating your workplace is – or isn’t – to gender-nonconforming co-workers, whether you know they identify that way or not. If you don’t have an affirming culture in your workplace, don’t pretend that pronouns are enough, Turner Schofield said.
“A living wage, trans-inclusive health care policies, culturally competent staff, and business practices in the world that aren’t actively harmful to trans and nonbinary people are the actual goals of our community,” he says. “Pronouns are the bare minimum.”