Let’s Talk About Pronouns: 5 Tips for Gender Inclusivity in the Workplace

June 15, 2021

[Updated June 2023] Nothing is more personal than a pronoun.  

For cisgender people, whose sex and gender identity align, this may seem like an exaggeration. But for transgender and/or non-binary folks – people whose gender identity and expression vary from their birth-assigned sex – pronouns are a BIG deal.    

For gender nonconforming people, misgendering is exhausting, alienating, and – I’m going to come right out and say it – a slur. It is a denial of personhood. And it can have a massive impact in the workplace.    

A landmark study by the Center for American Progress revealed that 90% of transgender employees have experienced harassment, discrimination or mistreatment at work, including colleagues misgendering them. Whether intentional or not, misgendering can increase psychological distress, leading to greater depression, lower self-esteem and suicidal ideation.  

Gender pronouns are not a niche issue. According to Pew, one in five Americans say they personally know someone who uses a pronoun other than “he” or “she,” and one in four LGBTQ+ youth uses a pronoun that falls outside the gender binary.   

The workforce of the future will be increasingly gender nonconforming, which is why it’s important to build gender inclusivity into your workplace practices now. Read on for five tips on how to get pronouns right at work!  

1. Educate Yourself 

It’s a good idea to brush up on what gender pronouns are – and how much their usage has evolved in recent years. Gender pronouns (such as “she/her/hers”) are the way we refer to each other’s gender identity, but gender is more fluid than the binaries of male and female. People may be trans, non-binary, and/or genderqueer – and they may use a variety of pronouns to reflect that, including neopronouns, which are an alternative to existing third-person pronouns (e.g., “ze/zir”).   

Check out the UC Davis LGBTQIA Resource Center Pronouns guide for a (non-exhaustive) list of possibilities. For tips on how to refer to gender, sex, and sexuality in the workplace, download Brilliant Ink’s DEI Style Guide.  

Learn 3 Principles for Crafting Inclusive Internal Communications

2. Don’t Assume and Don’t Ask 

When we use gender pronouns, it’s usually based on how we read/interpret a person’s outward appearance. But because gender identity is internal – a sense of how a person feels inside – we don’t know a person’s correct gender pronoun just by looking at them.  

You might think it’s a better idea to ask a colleague directly what their pronouns are, but asking can be just as complicated as assuming. No one asks cis folks what their pronouns are; most people only tend to ask visibly transgender or gender nonconforming people about their pronouns, which can feel marginalizing and insulting.   

Rather than asking, lead with your own pronouns, as Lily Zheng advises. “Hi, I’m Farida, and my pronouns are she/hers.” Until a colleague discloses otherwise, you can also default to using the singular “they” when referring to your teammates. Leading with inclusivity and normalizing “they” indicates a basic level of knowledge and respect that your colleagues will appreciate.  

💡PRO TIP: Never ask someone what their “preferred pronouns” are. No one’s pronouns are a preference; they just are.  

3. Own Your Mistakes 

If you happen to misgender a colleague by accident and realize it in the moment, correct yourself and move on. “Sorry; I meant ‘he.’” If you realize it after the fact, apologize in private and move on. Don’t dwell, and don’t make it your colleague’s responsibility to comfort you. Just be mindful moving forward!  

It’s important to correct your mental understanding of your colleague so that the right pronoun comes to mind the next time you interact. This does require conscious effort, but bias is like that. Even when our social programming conditions us to assume gender, we must actively fight against it to be more inclusive.   

4. Be an Ally 

If you are cisgender, including your pronouns in your professional presence online sends a signal to trans and gender nonconforming colleagues that you recognize your privilege and are an ally. Add your gender pronouns to your email signature, company bio, and socials such as LinkedIn, which rolled out an option for identifying your pronouns a few years ago.    

If you are a manager or leader, ask colleagues to share their pronouns during intros or icebreakers – if they feel comfortable. “Tell us your name, your role, and, if you’re comfortable, your gender pronouns.” Since not everyone feels comfortable disclosing their gender pronouns, it should ALWAYS be optional.   

Be careful not to assume that the absence of pronouns is a sign of transphobia. Sometimes, people aren’t ready to disclose their pronouns, and an inclusive workplace will respect that.  

Here's How To Attract Diverse Talent With Inclusive Job Postings

5. Expect Complexity 

Sometimes, a colleague may use more than one pronoun to refer to themselves, such as “she/they.” According to the Trevor Project, nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ+ youth who use pronouns outside of the binary opt to use combinations. 

Individuals may use combinations for a variety of reasons – they may feel equally comfortable with both pronouns, or they may not be out yet, so they might use different pronouns depending on their level of comfort.  

 Rather than asking which pronoun they prefer, which can feel dicey, use both pronouns interchangeably to indicate your acceptance of complexity. “Riley aced their performance review. Her promotion will be announced next week.” Remember that language is contextual and that complexity is to be expected rather than avoided.   

Let Inclusion Be Your Guide 

Nuance and compassion in the workplace are more critical than ever. With more and more Americans identifying as gender nonconforming – and with more than 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced across the U.S. in 2023 alone –   communicators must be thoughtful in how they navigate their commitment to a diverse and inclusive culture.  

Educate yourself on the variety of pronouns that exist today; don’t assume and don’t ask a person’s pronouns; own any mistakes you make along the way; be an ally by including your pronouns in your professional presence online; and expect that gender identity is complex and requires constant mitigation of your own biases.    

As a first step, be sure to use gender-neutral language throughout your job descriptions. Learn how to use inclusive language in job postings to attract diverse talent. And for more on how to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, visit the Straight for Equality in the Workplace resource center. 

Looking for more bite-sized brilliance? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter, the Inkwell, and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest

Download Our DEI Style Guide

You might also like

How To Refresh Company Core Values

Your core values tell employees and customers who you are. Here are the steps to refresh your core values.

Read more
7 AI Tools For Internal Communicators

With AI at our fingertips, we’re working smarter and faster. Learn how artificial intelligence (AI) can supercharge your IC toolkit and transform the way you work.

Read more
4 Common Problems With Your Employee Surveys

If your survey is flawed, your data is flawed. We're showing you 4 key engagement survey mistakes and how to fix them. Learn how to launch winning employee surveys.

Read more