It can be legally problematic if your employee feels discriminated against because coworkers use “he” or “she” rather than “they.” (Illustration by Marissa Lewis; elements from Shutterstock)

Dilemma of the Month: How to Best Handle Gender-Neutral Pronouns

Back Q&A Mar 6, 2020 By Suzanne Lucas
I have an employee who would like to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns — a singular “they” instead of “he” or “she,” for example — but not all of my managers are following the request. The employee has come to me to point this out. Some coworkers also aren’t accommodating the request, making this employee feel excluded. What is our obligation to this employee, and do we face possible legal repercussions?

Only one court (to my knowledge) has dealt with a specific pronoun case. Still, California has strong protections in place for LGBT employees, and the Supreme Court is currently deliberating on a group of cases that will (perhaps) determine if gender identity is protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Regardless of how that turns out, California courts are likely going to side with protections, just as a federal court in Ohio did in February when it dismissed a lawsuit by a Christian professor who challenged Shawnee State University’s requirement that he use preferred pronouns of transgender students.

All this means is that it can be legally problematic if your employee feels discriminated against because coworkers use “he” or “she” rather than “they.” You could certainly argue that if people at the office refuse to use someone’s preferred pronouns, they are discriminating against that person. 

But how do you deal with this? It will require a little understanding from everyone.

Politeness Is Important

If I tell you my name is Suzanne, and you insist on calling me Sue, you’re rude. It’s not important whether you think Sue is more appropriate or you hate the name Suzanne, or it has too many syllables, or you’re morally opposed to using the letter Z in a name, it’s not appropriate to create your own nickname for me.

Likewise, if someone says, “Please use ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ when referring to me,” you should use “they.” Using “he” or “she” is rude (and could be evidence of illegal discrimination). In spite of anyone’s beliefs about whether or not the singular “they” is appropriate, if someone asks you to use it, use it about that person. 

The workplace is not where we should fight our political or cultural battles. We are polite to our coworkers, and this is the polite thing to do.

Understand Change Is Hard

Being asked to use “they” in reference to an individual may be new to some people, but the Oxford English Dictionary dates this usage back to the 14th century. We have used it for years when we don’t know someone’s gender. Like this: “You should ask your boss what they think about that.” I use “they” as singular because I haven’t met your boss and have no idea whether your boss is a man or woman. Most of us (except for extreme grammarians) are OK with that.

Referring to a person you know in that manner may seem weird at first. Even someone who is supportive of nonbinary people and their rights can stumble over a simple sentence. It’s essential to give people time to correct if they make a mistake.

How are gender-neutral pronouns handled in your workplace? Tweet us @comstocksmag!

Support your nonbinary employee by asking if they would like you to make corrections on their behalf, and let them know that it’s OK to correct people but to do so in a professional manner. They may also choose certain situations where they let it go, and that is up to them. However, if someone on the staff knows Chris uses “they,” that person should be corrected, and if they continue using the wrong pronouns, HR should have a chat about politeness, discrimination and putting the company at risk.

If it’s a vendor you’ll see once every six months, it’s in the middle of a meeting, and the vendor uses “he” to refer to Chris, it may be disruptive to correct the vendor in an instance like that, but the boss or Chris can follow up with the vendor: “FYI, Chris uses they/them. Thought you’d want to know for future reference.” However, this scenario could be embarrassing to the gender-neutral person, so once again, make sure to have the conversation about how to handle this type of situation with the employee before it happens.

Remember, this is much bigger than just whether someone is polite to a colleague in the workplace. This is about ensuring that your employee does not feel discriminated against on the basis of their identity. If you’re still unclear on what to do or why this matters, I suggest you make use of numerous resources online from LGBT organizations and other groups that offer FAQ pages for how to handle pronouns.

This is an issue that will come up more often, and we need to be prepared. This doesn’t mean all your employees need to identify their pronouns in their email signatures, but if someone wants to, they should. 

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Visitor (not verified)March 11, 2020 - 7:55am

Your analogy is backward. It should be your name is Suzanne, but you insist on being called Sue. Then is it rude for someone to call you Suzanne?

Andrea Raymond (not verified)March 11, 2020 - 2:21pm

I am pretty sure in these situations it is ok to use the person's name (correctly) if it is difficult to remember to use "they".

David (not verified)September 3, 2020 - 3:19pm

Agreed. Also, they has never been used as a singular pronoun. The 14th century reference is to Shakespeare's play William and the Wolf where the line "Each man hurried til they grew near where William and his darling were together." They is used bc each man is part of a group of men, plural, or it would have been written 'One man or the man.'

There is not one example in history of using they to describe a single person gender known.

I might therefore suggest instead of changing the English language and confusing countless people in doing so, that another word be chosen to accommodate this minority.

Jennifer FergesenSeptember 4, 2020 - 11:16am

Hi David, there are in fact numerous examples of Shakespeare using "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun, to say nothing of other 14th-century authors. To pick just one, here's a quote from Act IV Scene 3 of A Comedy of Errors in which "they" is used for the singular even when the gender of the antecedent is known:

"There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend"

And I'm sure you can find similar examples in the casual speech of many people around you. Linguistics is all about listening!

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