Pronoun Policies Aren't Enough to Foster Inclusivity

Author: Emily Scace, Brightmine Legal Editor

Date: July 25, 2023

In an effort to create a welcome environment for employees of all gender identities, many employers have begun encouraging - or even requiring - employees to share their pronouns in places such as email signatures and messaging profiles. The idea is that by making pronoun sharing the default rather than the exception, the organization is signaling that transgender and nonbinary individuals should feel safe being open about their gender identity and pronouns at work.

As these policies become more popular among employers, many are beginning to wonder: How well do they really work?

Pronoun Policies Aren't Perfect

The intentions behind a workplace pronoun policy are good, but it's not quite that simple. Fostering a sense of safety and belonging in the workplace requires more than adding a pronoun field to an email signature template. And if a pronoun-sharing practice is poorly considered or implemented without a larger strategy of promoting acceptance and inclusion, such efforts can backfire and may even do more harm than good.

Some pronoun sharing policies and practices, if too heavy-handed, may pressure employees to share information they would prefer to keep private. Some individuals may not be ready to share their gender identity or pronouns at work. They may be questioning, considering a transition, or simply not comfortable revealing that part of themselves to their colleagues. Pressuring them to choose a pronoun and publicly display it can have the opposite of the intended effect - making them feel singled out and uncomfortable rather than fostering a sense of safety and belonging.

The Risk of Discrimination

There are more serious risks, too. If some employees' attitudes toward people with gender identities different from their own are less than accepting, pushing people to prominently display their pronouns can have the unfortunate result of making some employees more vulnerable to bullying and harassment. Employers, of course, have a duty to prevent and correct this behavior - but some of it may be subtle and difficult to spot unless someone comes forward with a complaint.

From a legal standpoint, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated that an isolated mistake in referring to a person's name or gender identity - while undoubtedly painful for the person at the receiving end - generally does not rise to the level of unlawful harassment. However, repeated misgendering or deliberately refusing to use a person's name or pronoun may constitute gender-based or gender identity harassment if it is sufficiently severe and/or pervasive to constitute a hostile work environment.

In addition, some state and local antidiscrimination laws specifically require employers to use an employee's stated gender, name and pronoun, except in situations where the employer must obtain the employee's legal name or assigned sex at birth to meet a legal obligation.

So how should an employer navigate these tricky considerations? How can employers effectively encourage and normalize pronoun sharing while avoiding the risks and drawbacks?

Key Considerations

First, while employers can and should create opportunities for employees to share their pronouns - and communicate those opportunities in a policy - disclosure should always be a choice rather than a mandate. Employers should ensure that employees can easily opt into or out of displaying a pronoun in email signatures, user profiles and other places.

In addition, employers cannot rely solely on pronoun sharing, without a larger strategy addressing inclusion and belonging. An employer that is serious about creating a safe and welcoming environment for employees of all gender identities should demonstrate its commitment with a comprehensive strategy. Areas to address include:

  • Practical considerations: Where and how will employees be able to share their pronouns if they wish to do so? What is the process for an employee who wishes to communicate a change of name, pronoun or gender identity? Are there areas where an employee can make changes independently without an intermediary in HR, IT or another department?
  • Employee expectations: Employers should clearly communicate that employees are expected to respect and use their colleagues' correct, current name and pronouns and that intentional misgendering or deadnaming is unacceptable.
  • Supervisor and manager training: Supervisors and managers should receive training on the company's inclusivity strategy and their role in implementing it, including leading by example, sharing their own pronouns if they wish to do so but not pressuring team members to do the same.
  • Bullying, harassment and discrimination: An employer should have a clear policy prohibiting bullying, harassment and discrimination on the basis of gender identity, including clear consequences for violations and a process for employees to report concerns.
  • Global context: Employers that operate globally may need to consider additional facets of gender inclusivity. For example, a gender binary is deeply ingrained in the grammar of many languages, making inclusive and gender-neutral language a more demanding challenge. Employers must decide whether to adopt new inclusive terms in these languages - and if so, update handbooks and company communications accordingly.