Pronouns and Respect
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
A newly hired team member is non-binary and prefers the pronouns they/them. They came to me requesting help with the best way to encourage people in the office to refer to them with these proper pronouns, and most of my colleagues are simply using their name, saying him, or saying her. I’m not sure what to do in this situation and would appreciate any advice you can give!
You helping your colleague is wonderful—and lightens their load in being seen for who they are. After you read the rest of my answer, it may be helpful to talk with your non-binary colleague about how much, and under what circumstances, they would like you to help.
Using gendered pronouns is a habit that’s been instilled in most of us since childhood, so it takes effort—and can take time—to develop a new habit of using them/they as a singular pronoun—to refer to one person rather than more than one. But using they/them is fundamentally about conveying respect, and that may be the key underlying concept to share with your colleagues. To the extent that your colleagues understand what non-binary means—that your new colleague identifies as something other than the traditional binary male or female—it can be easier to make the habit change in their thinking and their language. Note that your question focused on pronouns; ideally, though, the goal is to create a work environment in which your non-binary colleague, as well as your other colleagues, feel safe to be themselves and feel respected and included as they are.
Hearing you and others refer to your new colleague with they/them will help make that shift. In addition, practice is the best thing for developing a new habit, even when the practice isn’t spoken aloud. Let your colleagues know that practice should help, and their efforts will be very meaningful to your new colleague. When they forget to use non-gendered pronouns (either because they realize it on their own after the fact, or because your or others flag it), encourage them not to make a big deal out of it—just a quick “whoops,” “thank you” (if someone pointed it out), or “sorry” and move on.
With colleagues who seem to be having a hard time using the right pronouns, it might be helpful to share with them the adverse effects of using the wrong pronouns, so they more deeply understand the impact of referring to your non-binary colleague with binary language (and perhaps non-verbal signs of disrespect). As I mentioned at the start of my answer, this is fundamentally about respect for your non-binary colleague. The rest of your colleagues likely want to be polite, respectful people—and be seen as such. Thus, it’s not “optional” to use they/them. A persistent attempt to NOT change (or try to change) their language seems to be a sign of fundamental disrespect. For instance, if a new colleague had a medical degree and asked to be referred to as "Doctor", wouldn’t they try to remember to do that? Similarly, if a colleague married and took a new last name, wouldn’t they try to remember that?
I also wonder where your boss is in all of this and why your boss hasn’t stepped up to help. Here’s an article that may be useful to pass on to your boss. This article addresses what a leader/manager can do when other employees aren’t referring to their non-binary colleague with appropriate pronouns. It may also help to speak with HR or your manager to raise the issue of the gendered language that’s used in a company or team emails and documents. Even a discussion with your colleagues about the way gender (and pronouns) are used in emails and company documents can help your colleagues see the ways that gender-neutral language could be used. This guide provides specific, useful information on best practices for non-binary inclusion in the workplace.
Finally, because of how you phrased your question, I assume that your organization doesn’t have a policy about respecting (e.g. using) the pronouns each individual asks for, and your locale doesn’t have a law about using employees’ desired pronouns. This may be an opportunity to bring the issue to HR’s attention. Increasingly, employers are recognizing the importance of gender and protecting their employees from being misgendered.
Disclaimer: This question and response is provided for informational purposes only, and you should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. It is strongly recommended that you immediately seek legal or other professional advice if you believe you are experiencing a problem requiring professional assistance. Robin Rosenberg and Live in Their World, Inc. disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on Dear Robin content.