No one likes being called something they’re not. Think about it: it can be annoying enough if someone misspells or mispronounces your name; but imagine being constantly labelled something that you’re not all the time. Not only is it incredibly annoying, but it can also be demeaning and downright insulting.

With the world of work taking great strides to make inclusive and diverse company cultures the norm, one aspect of inclusivity that has possibly struggled to keep pace is that of people’s gender and in particular, the personal pronouns we all choose to best describe our gender identity.

Whilst sexual orientation discrimination and gender reassignment discrimination are both illegal in the UK, they were only listed as protected characteristics in the Equality Act of 2010. Since then, it could be argued that the world of work has perhaps been slow in keeping pace with how people choose to identify themselves and ensuring a truly inclusive workplace environment for everyone.

employee diversity personal pronouns

For example, a recent report published Totaljobs earlier this year found that over 32% of trans people have experienced some form of discrimination or abuse at work in the last five years. The survey also found that 65% of trans people did not reveal their gender identity at work, compared with 52% in 2016. Clearly, there is much more that can be done by organisations to create truly inclusive workplaces – and recognising the importance of your employee’s pronouns is a great place to start.

What are personal pronouns?

Let’s start with the basics. Gender pronouns are words used by a person that best describes them as an individual, with the most used pronouns being “he, him, his” and “she, her, hers.” These terminologies are ones that virtually all of us are familiar and comfortable with; however, people who are transgender, nonbinary, or don’t identify with a certain gender may choose to use pronouns that don’t follow traditional binary male/female gender categorisations, such as “they, them, theirs.”

Why are personal pronouns important?

It’s true that for most people, the subject of pronouns isn’t something they give much thought to – and perhaps therein lies the issue. Gender identities are not as simple as just male or female; and just because someone was born a male or female doesn’t mean they identify as their born gender later in life.

Chris Mosier, Transgender Activist, athlete and Inclusion & Leadership Consultant probably summarised it best when he stated “Pronouns are the easiest way to acknowledge someone’s identity. Using a person’s personal pronoun is a form of respect and validation. It makes us feel seen and embraced. It is a small but super impactful way to create a safer environment for anyone.”

Ultimately, it boils down to respect. Everyone must respect the fact that people have their own instinctive sense of identity that’s unique to them, and this is something that can change over time and not remain static. So, just lumping that sense of identity into one of either two pre-conceived, rigid categories simply isn’t respectful or inclusive.

The importance of personal pronouns in the workplace

Respecting someone’s gender identity should be a given regardless of setting. But in the workplace, organisations have a duty to ensure that everyone feels included and not like an outsider – after all, these are founding principles of positive company cultures.

When someone feels like an outsider or doesn’t feel like they belong or even acknowledged in a working environment because of their gender identity, it’s often the case that they won’t stick around in a role or have a positive employee experience, either. This type of negativity can also lead to lead to decreased morale and staff engagement, along with lower productivity. More seriously though, is that failure to support employees from trans or non-binary backgrounds can lead to more severe workplace issues, such as bullying or discrimination.

So, whilst the subject of pronouns may not have been something you have given much thought to in the past, it’s a conversation that every organisation and HR team from every industry should be taking very seriously indeed.

What can HR teams do to highlight the importance of personal pronouns?

There are a number of positive changes that organisations and HR teams can do to make their workplaces gender inclusive as part of a wider inclusivity strategy, and these include:

  • Update your company email signatures

One simple thing businesses can do to start opening up the conversation about gender identity is to give the option of including them on email signatures. This is great for awareness building both inside and outside the business, but can also help transgender employees or those who do not identify with the traditional binary definitions of gender (non-binary identities for example) feel more comfortable and acknowledged in the workplace.

  • Make support to your employees visible

Updating your email signatures is a simple way to start highlighting importance of pronouns; but acknowledging and showing support to your employee’s gender identities should play a huge part of any diversity, equality and inclusion strategy. Ask yourself: does your HR software have the ability to recognise genders other than male, female or ‘other’? Are your HR teams up to speed with the correct gender identity terminology? Does your organisation provide gender diversity and inclusion training to managers and employees?

  • Review your company policies

In addition to making your support more visible, it’s also prudent to review your company’s policies to ensure they’re fit for purpose in including complex gender identities. For example, Stonewall recommends implementing a Trans Inclusion policy and Transitioning at Work policy to help with dealing transition-related absences.

  • Assess whether your facilities are up to scratch

Lastly, whilst many of us are still working from home, now may be the time to assess whether your organisation’s on-site facilities need a rethink and are truly representative of an inclusive work environment. For example, you may want to consider providing individual toilet cubicles for all staff or allowing staff to use facilities that align best with their gender identity.

Paul Bauer author image

Paul Bauer

Paul Bauer is the Head of Content at Cezanne HR. Based in the Utopia of Milton Keynes (his words, not ours!) he’s worked within the employee benefits, engagement and HR sectors for over four years. He's also earned multiple industry awards for his work - including a coveted Roses Creative Award.