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Putting Gender-Neutral Language To Work

Show respect for all employees by choosing words that speak to them
By Colin Druhan


In 2015, the American Dialect Society voted the word they, used as a singular pronoun, as its Word of the Year. Over the last several years, many leading publications such as The Washington Post and The Economist have adopted the use of the singular they in their stylebooks. These developments reflect the growing need for publications, organizations and individuals to appropriately represent people who don’t feel comfortable being described as he or she. Here are a few things for employers to keep in mind:


Trust that people know who they are
When someone provides you with the language they need to feel respected, take it seriously and understand that you don’t get to decide someone else’s identity, or how they express their gender. Reflect the language they use back to them so they know you listened. If you make a mistake, be sure to apologize for your error and take steps to improve moving forward.


Don’t make assumptions
Avoid jumping to conclusions about which pronouns to use with someone simply because of their name or other characteristics. This goes hand in hand with not making assumptions about the gender identity of someone’s partner or spouse. If you don’t know if someone uses he, she, they or another pronoun, try rephrasing your messages to make sure you’re not mis-gendering someone. For example, “Taylor can bring her husband to the event next Friday” can become something like “Taylor can bring their spouse to the event next Friday.”


Take guesswork out of the equation
Provide opportunities for people to share information about what language they need to feel respected. This could be as simple as allowing employees to place their chosen pronoun in their email signature or on their name tag. If everyone is introducing themselves at the outset of a meeting, ask attendees to include this information when they share their name and role.


Update policies to make them more inclusive
When making changes to policies, be mindful of the use of gendered pronouns. Avoid the use of he/she (instead employing they), or rephrase sentences to not use pronouns at all. For example, An employee is not to make personal phone calls on his/her shift can become Employees are not to make personal calls while working. Make sure this extends to the content of policies such as dress codes, as well. These steps help everyone to feel represented in policies, including people who don’t identify as either a man or a woman.


Put in the effort
Understand that the way people articulate their gender identities is always changing. Take steps to become familiar with some pronouns that may seem less familiar such as ze or hir and gender-neutral honorifics such as Mx. Some people say making these changes can be difficult. However, as with anything, it gets easier with practice, so don’t use that as an excuse not to try.


COLIN DRUHAN is the executive director of Pride at Work Canada, a not-for-profit organization that empowers employees to foster workplace cultures that recognize LGBT employees. For more information, visit prideatwork.ca.



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