Being comfortable bringing your authentic self to work is key to feeling happy, engaged and satisfied at work. Part of fostering such a culture is ensuring people's identities are seen, respected and represented correctly. A recent study of LGBTQ+ workers by the Human Rights Campaign found that employee engagement declined as much as 30% in unfriendly work environments.
One simple way to ensure you're respectfully communicating with and referring to colleagues is by using their correct name and gender pronouns. For example, you likely often refer to others in conversation by using names or pronouns: "Sherry completed the report last Thursday. Her insights ensured the program's success." If you're unsure of a person's pronouns, it is best to ask or simply use their name.
In this article, we'll provide an overview of what gender pronouns are and how to use them in language at work to foster an inclusive culture and make others feel respected and comfortable at work.
What are gender-neutral pronouns?
Gender-neutral pronouns are a type of third-person nouns that you use to refer to someone without indicating a singular or specific gender. Gender-neutral pronouns can refer to a group of people (the "plural they") or a single person (the "singular they").
For example, "they went shopping" could indicate that a group of people went shopping together. It could also mean that a single person went shopping by themselves. Instead of saying "she went shopping" or "he went shopping," using the gender-neutral pronoun "they" describes what someone is doing without making assumptions about that person's gender.
Why is it important to use someone's correct pronouns?
Learning people's pronouns and then committing to using them correctly is an important part of showing respect for others. A person's relationship with their gender can be deeply personal and meaningful, and most people use pronouns to express that relationship. Assuming a person's pronouns based on external factors like their clothing, physical characteristics or name may make them feel uncomfortable, disrespected or invalidated. Furthermore, neglecting to use a person's correct name or pronouns after you've learned them can be seen as a workplace microaggression and may even violate some company policies.
Using gender-neutral language at work
It is a good practice to use names or gender-neutral pronouns until you learn someone's correct pronouns. Once you learn a person's pronouns, use them correctly and consistently. It is similar to calling someone by their preferred name. For example, if a coworker expressly told you they prefer to be called "Robert," not "Bob," calling them "Bob" could be seen as disrespectful.
Using gender-neutral pronouns is just one step in implementing inclusive language. Other commonplace phrases like "hey guys" or "ladies and gentlemen" can inadvertently exclude certain identities. Practice using gender-neutral language to get into a habit of being affirming and not making assumptions. For example, say "everyone" or "team" when speaking to a group instead of using a gendered phrase.
Common gender-neutral pronouns
"They" is one of the most widely-used gender-neutral pronouns, but other neopronouns are becoming more common. Neopronouns means "new pronouns," but many neopronouns have been around for hundreds of years in various languages and cultures. Pronunciation varies from person to person, so ask first if you aren't sure how to pronounce it.
Here are more common gender-neutral pronouns with examples of how to use them:
"They/them/theirs" is a good pronoun set to use when you do not know someone's pronouns and are not able to ask. While some people have trouble using "they" pronouns because they associate them with groups of people, the singular "they" is both inclusive and grammatically correct. Here are some examples of how to use the singular they and its forms:
- "Allison left their binder at home, so they're driving back to get it."
- "I had a great time talking to Bernardo today. I really respect them and their opinions."
- "Is this book yours or theirs?"
"Ze" is a common pronoun in the genderqueer and nonbinary communities to indicate that someone does not identify with a binary gender. However, not everyone who uses "ze" pronouns is genderqueer. Here are a few ways you can use ze pronouns in conversation:
- "Ze is studying to be a lawyer and is about to take zir bar exam."
- "Ze taught zirself how to play the piano. Will you come with me to zir first recital?"
- "Michael asked Christy to babysit and ze said yes. We should write a thank-you note for zem."
"E/em/eirs" is part of a set of pronouns called Spivak pronouns coined by mathematician Michael Spivak in the book "The Joy of TeX." Although that book was published in 1983, this set of pronouns has been recorded as early as 1890. Some people use "ey" instead of "e" when using the pronoun in its subject form.
- "E loves camping, skiing and walking eir dog around the lake."
- "I gave em a copy of my resume and ey said ey would call me tomorrow."
- "We met in eir office to review last month's finance report."
"Xe/xem/xyr" is another gender-neutral pronoun that has become more popular in recent years. Examples of this pronoun set are:
- "Xe took night classes to earn xyr college diploma."
- "Xe is my closest friend in the office, so I'm excited to work with xem on this project."
There are also several other gender-neutral pronouns, such as:
Using honorifics and titles in conjunction with someone's name is a common practice in professional situations. Honorifics like "Mr." and "Ms." also imply someone's gender, but there are gender-neutral titles you can use instead. Examples of gender-neutral honorifics you can use are:
Some people prefer not to use honorifics at all, so when in doubt, just use someone's name.
How to find out someone's gender pronouns
If you want to find out someone's gender pronouns, first consider the context of your situation. Not everyone may feel safe and comfortable sharing their pronouns in a professional environment, especially if they work in a conservative environment or have experienced gender-based discrimination and harassment before.
One of the best ways to learn someone else's pronouns is to share your own pronouns when introducing yourself. For example: "Hi, my name is Jonathan and I use he/him pronouns."
This can indicate to others that you are a safe person for them to share their pronouns with if they want to. You might also consider including your pronouns in your email signature, chat and video meeting profiles. Doing so can help encourage others to be more aware of pronoun usage at work. It can also help take the pressure off of trans and nonbinary people to educate others about pronoun usage.
Asking for a person's pronouns
If you're unsure about a person's pronouns, it is usually best to simply ask the person one-on-one, directly and in a respectful manner. When you ask for a person's pronouns, keep it brief and simple without asking unnecessary questions or dwelling on the topic with stories from your own background, or asking for more context from theirs.
For example, "Casey, I just want to confirm that your pronouns are he/him/his—is that correct?" or "Casey, do you mind if I ask the correct pronouns to use when referring to you at work?" — and then move on with the conversation professionally as it pertains to work subject matter.
Avoid targeting a particular person in a group by only asking them about their pronouns. If you are going to bring up the topic of pronouns in a group setting, make sure you ask everyone to avoid making assumptions or making people feel isolated.
During this process, you may find out that you have been using the wrong pronouns for someone. If so, take a moment to genuinely apologize and correct your mistake. Remember that your discomfort or embarrassment at using the wrong pronouns for someone else is likely minimal compared to the stress they feel when being misgendered or called by pronouns that they don't identify with.
Tips for using gender-neutral pronouns
While gender-neutral pronouns have been around for a long time, some people are only recently learning about them. Like any new situation, it is natural to make mistakes when you first start practicing using gender-neutral pronouns. Use these tips to get better and more consistent with your pronoun use:
Start by purposefully incorporating gender-neutral pronouns into your everyday speech. If you accidentally refer to someone by the wrong pronouns, restate the sentence with correct pronouns and then use the right pronouns in the rest of the sentence. For example: "Claire went to get her—I'm sorry, I meant 'their'—Claire went to get their bag from their car to get their address book. They will be back soon."
By intentionally using Claire's correct pronouns after a mistake, you'll start developing the correct muscle memory for referring to them at work. The more you practice, the more natural it will feel.
Say thank you
If someone corrects you on their pronouns or shares with you that they want to start using different pronouns, thank them for putting in the effort to be honest and direct with you. Nonbinary and trans people may be concerned about backlash from sharing their pronouns, and some people may not even bother correcting people if they don't think they will be receptive to feedback.
When someone cares enough about their relationship with you to share their pronouns and correct your usage of them, respond with humility and gratitude instead of being defensive.
Correct instances of misgendering
Part of learning to internalize gender-neutral pronouns involves correcting others when they use the wrong pronouns for someone, especially if that person is not present. If a coworker openly told your department that they prefer "ze use ze/zem" pronouns, stand up for them if you hear others using other pronouns.
Politely explain that the coworker uses "ze" pronouns. This helps you subconsciously get used to associating "zem" with the right pronouns while contributing to an inclusive and respectful culture.
Frequently asked questions about gender-neutral pronouns
Who can use gender-neutral pronouns?
Anyone can use gender-neutral pronouns, regardless of their gender identity. Although gender-neutral pronouns are common among people who identify as genderqueer, agender or nonbinary, cisgender and transgender people may also use them. Someone who identifies as a woman may still prefer to be addressed as "they," even if they are fully comfortable with other gendered terms.
Is it ever inappropriate to use gender-neutral pronouns?
The only time it is inappropriate to use gender-neutral pronouns is when someone has expressly told you that they have other pronouns. This is especially important for transgender people, who likely see their new pronouns as part of their transition. For example, if a trans woman lets you know that her pronoun is "she/hers," regularly calling her "they/theirs" could be seen as invalidating to her identity. Some people may use multiple sets of pronouns such as "he/they," "she/they," or "he/she/they".