Why Pronouns Matter: Small Words, HUGE IMPACT + 5 Tips to Get'em Right
Remember that old rhyme: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me? It's a sturdy rhyme (some might say, it stands the test of time), but it doesn't work at work. If your HR person recites this when an employee asks them to use new or different pronouns, you need a new HR person.
Wait, what are pronouns?
Pronouns are the words we use to describe ourselves (1st person pronouns) and others (3rd person pronouns) in place of a proper name. For 3rd person pronouns, we're most familiar with feminine pronouns (she, her, hers, herself) and masculine pronouns (he, him, his, himself). But there are dozens of gender-neutral pronouns that we might be less familiar with. For example, some people use pronouns like ze, zim, zer, and zerself. Many others use the pronouns they, them, their, and themself as singular, third-person pronouns. The list goes on!
Pronouns are profoundly important for every person, especially transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive employees who are often misgendered (referred to with incorrect pronouns) on a regular basis.
Using someone’s correct personal pronouns is a way to respect them and create an inclusive environment.
Using correct personal pronouns makes all people feel safe, comfortable, and welcome. But you can't always accurately tell someone's gender or personal pronouns just by their appearance, their voice over the phone, or the legal name on their IDs. Trying to guess may lead to embarrassing or offensive situations, and when misgendering happens repeatedly or intentionally in the workplace, it can be grounds for a workplace discrimination or sexual harassment complaint.
A truly inclusive company proactively honors personal pronouns for everyone. Here's how.
5 Tips to Become a Pronoun Pro
We truly hope you incorporate some of the changes below. Keep in mind though, mandating these changes without the right foundation is a recipe for disaster. Before you roll these out, consider having a thoughtful, well-led discussion with your staff and management, or a professional training to prime your team to become pronoun pros.
1. Make pronouns part of your normal greeting.
When interviewing a potential employment candidate or speaking with potential customer or client, start out by introducing yourself and giving your personal pronouns. Then ask the other person how they would like to be addressed. It's super simple, tactful, and very impactful.
Thanks for coming in! My name is Jay and I use she/her pronouns. How about you -- how would you like to be addressed today?
Seriously, that's it. If the other person does not share their pronouns, that's perfectly fine -- there's no need to push the issue. But giving every person the opportunity to self-identify demonstrates that you are a welcoming and affirming employer who understands that a person's gender may not always be readily obvious by looking at them or their name on paper.
Be sure to only use the names and/or pronouns the person asks you to use, even later when they're no longer around. Set a good example of treating everyone with respect and dignity -- it will naturally inspire others to do the same!
2. Add "Pronouns: _____" to e-mail signature blocks, voicemail greetings, and business cards.
Adding personal pronouns to your regular contact info is an easy and straight-forward way to let people know how you identify, tells others that you know pronouns cannot always be accurately assumed, and invites others to do the same. Best of all, it's free! This low-hanging fruit elevates the standards by which your company operates.
EMAIL SIGNATURE BLOCK SAMPLE
Xander Y. Iko
Chief Operating Executive
Inclusive Company, Inc.
Pronouns: they, them, theirs
VOICEMAIL GREETING SAMPLE
Hi, you've reached Xander Iko. I use they / them pronouns...
Find some other samples here!
3. Include pronouns in all your intake forms + data management tools.
If your company asks clients, customers, or service recipients fill out forms about themselves, include a question about pronouns. This clarifies things for everyone right from the get go.
SAMPLE INTAKE QUESTION ON A FORM
First Name: ____________________________________________________
Last Name: ____________________________________________________
Preferred Name (if different): ______________________________________
Pronouns (e.g., she/her, he/him, they/them, etc.): __________________
Here's a great resource about different ways to incorporate these questions in online forms.
4. Make space for pronouns at meetings and events.
Whether it's a small team meeting or a company retreat, create space for people to share their preferred names and personal pronouns. Also, asking everyone to write both items on their name tags or name tents helps to normalize the practice. Often transgender and non-binary people have to go out of their way to remind people about their pronouns by wearing special pins or markers on their name tags. This can feel more isolating and invalidating if no one else is doing it too. But if (almost) everyone does it as a matter of course, then it takes an unbelievable amount of pressure off the trans or non-binary people in the room. It's a beautiful and simple act of solidarity.
SAMPLE INTRODUCTION AT MEETING
Hi all, we have a few new faces in the room. Let's take a moment to go around and give our names, and pronouns if you wish. I'll start. I'm Bek, I use he, him pronouns.
5. Don't argue with people about their pronouns.
There is absolutely no need to comment on or critique someone else's pronouns. Imagine if someone debated you about the accuracy or grammatical correctness of the pronouns you use for yourself -- it would feel awful, condescending, disrespectful, and embarrassing. So don't do it to someone else.
Instead of arguing, channel that energy into a productive curiosity. Where did pronouns even come from, and why should we be so restricted to the number of pronouns we can choose from? What other cool new things are happening with our language so that it better captures the diversity of gender experiences in our world? What does all of this mean for your own experience with gender and pronouns? It makes for fascinating dinner conversation with friends or topics for your personal journal. Try it out.
Struggling to remember or wrap your head around someone's new pronouns? Check out PracticeWithPronouns.com to explore and practice with a variety of pronouns in the comfort and safety of your own device -- it's free, and someone with a great sense of humor designed it just for you!
Got ID Tags at your company? Think about incorporating pronouns, or having employees add stickers with their preferred pronouns?
What about name tags for an event? Try something like this!