Pronouns: how to get it right in the workplace

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With the increased cultural visibility of gender neutral and transgender communities, the conversation around gender pronouns (for example “she/her”, “he/him”, “they/them”) is becoming louder and is one that is here to stay.

For many people, considering their preferred gender pronouns has never crossed their mind.

But for those whose gender does not necessarily align with the gender that they were assigned at birth, it can be a deeply personal, sensitive and emotive decision. It is important to be mindful that assuming someone’s gender based on their outward appearance and expression may not always be correct.

As often is the case, these societal shifts inevitably carry through to the workplace. Therefore, understanding how to proactively approach this topic within your own workplace, will ensure that your workplace is inclusive and comfortable for all, no matter a person’s gender.

What does the law say?

The Equality Act 2010 provides that it is unlawful to discriminate against someone because of a protected characteristic, of which there are nine. This includes “gender reassignment” and “sex”.

A person has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if the person is “proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person's sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex”. Note that no medical intervention is required, and a person can fall under this protected characteristic even if they decide to stop the process of transitioning.

Recently, it was found that those with “complex gender identities” may fall within the definition of gender reassignment under the Equality Act. Although this was only a tribunal decision and therefore is non-binding, it does suggest that those who consider themselves to be “non-binary” (i.e. someone who does not subscribe to the customary binary approach to gender) may also be protected from discrimination. Read more about Taylor v Jaguar Land Rover [2020] here.

So, what steps can you take to get it right?

  1. Ensure you have an “Equal Opportunities Policy” and that employees are regularly trained on it. This will provide a positive message to your employees that you value equality and diversity and take a proactive stance against discrimination. In addition, having an “Anti-Harassment Policy” that sits alongside this policy will help discourage discriminatory attitudes and behaviour and outline the consequences if an employee does discriminate against another employee (such as disciplinary action).
  2. Allow employees to include their preferred pronouns on their email signature/name tag. Some social media platforms (such as LinkedIn) now give users the option to include their preferred pronouns, and this may be something you want to include as well to avoid any ambiguity.  However, we’d advise against mandating employees to do this, as not only can it cause a conflict with those with gender critical beliefs but also potentially “out” someone who is going through gender reassignment but is not yet ready to tell their colleagues.
  3. Make documents, such as contracts of employment, gender neutral. This is a relatively easy change to make that can have a big impact. Simply by drafting the document in the first person (“you/your”), you remove any references to gender to avoid inadvertently misgendering an employee.
  4. Set up an LGBTQ+ employee network. Having a space that encourages open communication and increases the visibility of LGBTQ+ employees helps to create a safe environment where everyone feels comfortable and confident to be themselves. The network can also run panel events, internal campaigns and initiatives that explore LGBTQ+ issues creating a more inclusive workplace.
  5. Demonstrate trans allyship. When in a group setting, ask individuals to introduce themselves with their name and preferred pronouns (if they’re comfortable doing so). By initiating the conversation around pronouns, it avoids putting pressure on a trans colleague to bring up their preferred pronouns first. Also, you might want to consider referring to someone as “they/them” until you know someone’s preferred pronouns, to avoid misgendering them.

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