How to respectfully use gender neutral pronouns in the office

How we address one another is a basic yet monumental way of showing respect at work. Whenever you join a new office or are recruiting a new teammate, you may encounter new gender identities and expressions that do not fit into the boxes of “she” and “he.” While some transgender employees identify on a binary scale, others do not and adopt more fluid pronouns. For employees that do not identify as male or female, a “they” may be appropriate.

In order for every employee to feel included and seen, it’s important to challenge the assumptions you may hold around your coworkers’ identities when addressing them in everyday interactions. Here’s how to do it right:

Make asking about pronouns a part of the workflow

The best way to introduce gender-expansive language into your office is to not make it a big deal that singles people out. You do not want the burden to be on the individual to have to correct people about how they identify. That means making it part of everyone’s job to know as applicants get interviewed and are on-boarded.

For recruiters and managers, this can mean creating a space for job candidates to put down their preferred name and pronouns in their application. That way, when you meet them in the in-person interview, you avoid awkwardness in addressing someone based on how you assume they present.

If you hold power in the office, wield this power responsibly to make entry-level employees feel welcome. When new hires get introduced to a team, managers should role model good behavior and make pronoun disclosure a regular option of meetings and events with new faces. As the Human Rights Campaign details, it can be as simple as making it part of an optional icebreaker like, “We’re going to go around the room to introduce ourselves. Please say your name, the department you work in and, if you want, your personal pronouns.” As a general rule, it is best not to assume and to be proactive about asking within introductions.

Why using expansive language matters

If you get it wrong, do not get defensive and shut down. Be open-minded and learn from the experience. Recognize that your temporary discomfort is not more important than someone feeling their identity rejected. As writer Sam Dylan Finch put it, opting out of calling someone by their preferred pronouns is disrespectful, because it says that you think you know more than the person. It says: “I have decided my own interests are far more important than your safety, validation, and dignity. And when I made that decision, I probably gave you the impression that I am not someone you can trust.”

People who are afraid to learn may see expansive pronouns as something being forced upon them, but it’s actually a valuable learning experience that is making language more precise and meaningful because language changes over time. The words we use every day at work today reflect our lived reality. As writer Ashley Ford recently put it, “When someone tells me ‘That’s not a word we use to describe ______ anymore,’ what I hear is an opportunity to learn more about the language I call mine, and the people I walk, and live, and work beside every day. To me, this is a gift.”

Learning where words fit and do not fit means getting reflective about the reflexive language you use to greet colleagues. Is a “you guys” representative of the people in the room or would “you all” fit better? When you are proactive about using expansive language, you are signaling that you are willing to learn. You are not going to understand your colleagues right away, but you do not have to know someone to give them the common courtesy of a proper address.