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LGBTQ Inclusion: Using Pronouns at Work

A group of children holding a rainbow flag.

​Wynne Nowland has experienced feelings of being transgender since she was very young.

However, she kept them hidden because being transgender wasn't publicly discussed or widely accepted at that time. But her desire to live openly grew as she got older. At 56, she decided that coming out was in her best interest.

In May 2017, Nowland, CEO of insurance firm Bradley & Parker in Melville, N.Y., sent an e-mail to her 70-person staff revealing her true self.

"I am writing to tell you about a matter that is essentially personal but will result in some changes at work," Nowland wrote in the memo. "It is now time to share this information with you as I will be transitioning my gender. My name will be legally changed to Wynne Nowland."

Nowland requested that staff now call her Wynne, rather than her birth name, and use female pronouns (she, her, hers) when referring to her.

"I'm thoroughly aware that some of you may not understand the life changes I'm undertaking and that you may have questions," she wrote. "I'd much prefer that you come to me with those rather than ask others, no matter who they might be."

About 1.6 percent of U.S. adults, or 5.2 million people, are openly transgender or nonbinary, according to a 2022 report by the Pew Research Center. About 5 percent of people younger than 30 are transgender or nonbinary.

Everyone, not just transgender or nonbinary individuals, wants others to refer to them by their correct pronouns, such as he/him, she/her, they/them and ze/hir, among others. Using someone's correct gender pronouns is a way to show your respect for their identity in or outside of the workplace, according to Mackenzie Harte, learning and inclusion coordinator for PFLAG National, an LGBTQ advocacy organization.

"Respect is absolutely vital for a functioning workplace," Harte said. "And respecting the name and pronouns that somebody asks you to use is just another way to show your respect to your colleagues."

When Should HR Step In?

Some companies and institutions have policies in place to support the gender identity of their employees or students. For example, the University of California's nondiscrimination policy includes protections for sex and gender identities for their faculty, staff and students.

The University of California, San Francisco's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center provides information about the importance of using correct pronouns:

  • Correctly using gender pronouns sets a tone of allyship. It can leave a positive impression on LGBTQ individuals, especially for those who may feel particularly vulnerable in a new environment.
  • Using incorrect pronouns can have negative effects. You can't always know what someone's gender pronouns are just by looking at them. When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated or hurt. Feel free to ask them.
  • It's a learning experience. Many people may be learning about gender pronouns for the first time. Using correct pronouns sets a positive example for the workforce.

Nowland noted that accidentally calling someone by an incorrect pronoun may occasionally happen. However, it is important for an employee or manager to ensure that they use that person's correct pronouns in the future.

"If people have known you for a long time as one gender with a particular name and pronouns associated with it, there are likely to be slip-ups," she said.

Nowland explained that HR should step in if someone is habitually deadnaming or misgendering a colleague. A "deadname" is the birth name of a transgender person who has changed their name as part of their gender transition.

Harte, whose pronouns are they/them, also recommended that HR get involved if someone is unwilling to be respectful and inclusive in how they speak to others in the workplace—just as many organizations do when a colleague is verbally harassing another.

Harte also said workplaces should have policies around respectful behavior—including the use of correct names and pronouns—and their workplace culture should be reflective of those inclusive policies.

"Think about how you would feel if your co-workers constantly used the wrong name for you," they said. "Why would you want to do that to someone else?"

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Ensuring Workplace Inclusion for LGBTQ Employees]

Creating a Truly Inclusive Environment

Nowland said openly transgender and nonbinary workers should consider listing their correct name and gender in their title on social media platforms like LinkedIn. Other employees can follow suit by using their pronouns on social media or in e-mail correspondence, as this is a way to show support to the LGBTQ community.

Business leaders should also make sure that all official company records and even informal documents reflect their employees' preferred name, she said.

Harte encouraged companies to allow transgender and nonbinary employees to speak about their experiences and truly listen, especially on a leadership level. This can lead to a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ employees.

"Recognize awareness days and weeks, such as Trans Day of Visibility and Trans Awareness Week, and use those as opportunities for education," they said. "Hire trans/nonbinary speakers and trainers to be included in [diversity, equity and inclusion] work, and make sure they are included all year long."


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