Company Culture

A Manager’s Guide to Pronouns and Important Gender Terms

November 22, 2019
November 7, 2023
Adryan Corcione
Lattice Team

Transgender and non-binary people often face discrimination at work. Fortunately, managers have the power to reduce the likelihood of discrimination happening by creating safer, more gender inclusive environments.

Even before trans and non-binary people reveal their names, which may or may not match their legal IDs, they’re misgendered, meaning they’re mistaken for an incorrect gender identity. For instance, non-binary people who use gender-neutral pronouns — such as singular they, them, theirs — are often misgendered, because they are often mistaken for men or women.

Using a person’s correct pronouns validates their gender identity, whether they are trans or non-binary — or not. Even many cisgender women and men would take offense to being referred to by the incorrect pronouns. This is why the practice of asking for pronouns, as well as being vocal about pronouns when appropriate (like name tags), is critical. It not only makes workplaces safer for those outside of the traditional gender binary, but reinforces the idea you can’t assume someone’s pronouns, especially based on their appearance.

Fortunately, managers can take proactive steps to help ensure everyone is respected; they have the power to shift culture. Here’s an overview of how to integrate gender inclusivity, specifically normalizing the concept of gender pronouns, into your organization.

Familiarize yourself with basic gender-identity terminology

Let’s start with learning the basics of gender identity. It’s always helpful to start off doing some personal research, like reading books, online articles, or affirming media created by gender non-conforming people. Plus, get to know these important terms to memorize and circulate in your organization (as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary):

  • Gender identity or gender - a person's internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female
  • Cisgender or cis - of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth
  • Deadname - the name that a transgender person was given at birth and no longer uses upon transitioning
  • Transgender or trans - of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth
  • Nonbinary or non-binary or enby - relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female
  • Gender non-conforming or GNC - exhibiting behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits that do not correspond with the traits typically associated with one's sex; having a gender expression that does not conform to gender norms
  • Gender transition or transition - either short-lived or a long, ongoing process for transgender people, this process involves changing the way a person looks and how they are percieved by others, so that they can become the gender they feel on the inside, which can (but not always) include medical treatment and hormones, a name change, change in pronouns, change in appearance and/or dress, etc.
  • Misgender - to identify the gender of incorrectly, as by using an incorrect label or pronoun
  • Transphobia - irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against transgender people; similar to homophobia, but specifically oriented around gender rather than sexuality

For more guides on similar terms and their definitions, check out the Trevor Project’s resource.

When it comes to gender inclusivity, managers can (and intentionally should) create a culture of knowledge sharing. Ideally, cisgender people can correct other cisgender people when they misgender transgender people, with permission of the trans individuals involved — so transgender people aren’t always burdened with repetitively demanding to be seen as their correct gender and be called by the correct name.

Understand, too, adopting new terms and behaviors are a lifestyle change, not just friendly office etiquette. While respecting peoples’ gender identity is not only a nice thing to do, you can be punished by law for not doing so

How to introduce new names with pronouns

In gender-inclusive spaces, typically people introduce themselves with their preferred name and pronouns. If you’re running a meeting, for instance, ask attendees to introduce their names and pronouns in a circle before officially starting the meeting. When stragglers show up late, be sure to ask them to introduce themselves as well as their pronouns.

Pronouns should also be included whenever new people are introduced, whether it’s digitally, in-person, over the phone, or even in third-person conversations. (“Devon will be joining us on the conference call on Tuesday. They use they/them pronouns.”) For new employees, or even just potential employees, asking for a person’s pronouns can (and should) be done in the application, interview, and onboarding processes.

There are also plenty of ways to integrate pronouns passively, such as adding pronouns to name tags, administrative paperwork, email signatures, business cards, desk nameplates, and anywhere else someone would have their name. (For examples of this, check out how the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Trasngender Equity Center at University of Maryland demonstrates this.) Existing employees should practice this, and new employees should be explicitly instructed to do this (if they’re not already familiar) in hopes of creating a cultural shift towards better gender inclusivity. Even if you’re cisgender, vocalizing your own pronouns creates a culture of people knowing to ask for peoples’ pronouns and not assume them.

Developing a protocol for misgendering

Misgendering likely will happen. Until the practice of asking for people’s pronouns is socially normalized, it will be almost inevitable. This is why it’s critical to develop a go-to plan for situations where misgendering occurs. Ideally, this proactive plan will empower trans people to advocate for themselves in the face of discrimination and harassment.

“It's incredibly helpful for managers to simply give employees permission to be active bystanders and stand up for themselves and each other without repercussions,” Molly Woodstock, a gender and equity educator, explained in an interview with Lattice. “Employees should be able to, for example, correct colleagues/managers/clients/etc. about pronouns without fear of reprimand.”

The plans may vary depending on the perpetrator of the misgendering. How you respond to an aggressive customer, for instance, could vary from how you react to a clueless but open-minded colleague. 

“It would be great to see managers be willing to cut ties with clients or colleagues who are repeatedly unwilling to treat all people with respect and courtesy, whether that's evident through intentional misgendering or bigoted comments,” Woodstock added. “Putting the safety of all employees ahead of convenience or profit maximization is a really important step towards equity.”

Differentiating between legal and chosen names 

Lots of trans people have yet to change their name legally, so it should not be assumed their legal name is their chosen name. Many (but not all) transgender and non-binary people choose a new name during their gender transition to better match their gender identity. Many go on to change their name legally through the court system. Whether they have changed their names legally or not, the same people prefer to not to ever be referred to by their given name, or deadname. Deadnaming refers to addressing a person by their deadname, oftentimes specifically to trans and non-binary people who have socially (and potentially legally) changed their name. Similar to misgendering, it is considered to be a microaggression, especially when intentionally repeated over time.

There are a few ways to integrate this critical concept – the idea that a person’s legal name might not be their chosen name – into your organization. Administrative paperwork, for example, should have an option for “chosen name” next to any request for a legal name. Not only should this be done for existing employee files, but it should also be introduced in the application and interview phase. Additionally, all employees, especially those working in HR, should stay mindful and not refer to a person by their legal name unless requested.

Although transgender and non-binary people can face tremendous challenges at work in a transphobic society, managers can adopt new habits to make their organization far more welcoming and inclusive for all genders, especially marginalized ones.