HR folks & managers: asking ppl what pronoun they prefer
May 28, 2017 4:40 PM   Subscribe

I've been dropped into the dubious world of personnel management, borderline HR. I'm fumbling along, but one thing I'd like to do early in the company's life is to imbue a respectful adherence to people's pronoun preference. HR folks -- Is this respectful or intrusive?

I've been thinking so much about these issues lately, and since management has shoved me into a role I never wanted, I want to use my powers for good.

The lead counsel argues that such a question would be intrusive, and potentially impermissible. But to put that in perspective, he didn't know until I told him that they/their is a pronoun set for folks who are not gender binary or who don't wish to be addressed in a gender binary manner. He is still grappling with the verb tense you would use with those pronouns. Luckily, when I say, google it or drop it but don't bug me about that until you've educated yourself, he generally shuts up.

Any thoughts to back me up? I just want to add a line to our personnel form that asks new hires their preferred pronoun. I would obvs. also watch to be sure that the preferred pronoun is put into use by all. Any other traps for the unwary? Any other thoughts about what else I could do to promote a respectful environment? For context, this is a TINY company with 13 FTEs and a handful of consultants. I want to get things in place so that when we grow, this sort of thing is second nature.

You are not my HR director or lawyer, this is not legal advice. (BTW, IAAL, just not a labor lawyer)

Thanks for any thoughts, suggestions, criticism, scripts, recommendations, &tc.
posted by janey47 to Work & Money (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would find it extremely forward as a question and would probably leave it blank on a personnel form if I had already been hired. but with or without that, I think a nice way to make relevant information known to the office at large is by writing up a short introductory one-paragraph bio of each new hire to email out to everyone at the company. you could send each one to its subject for proofing and accuracy first, or just have people write it themselves in the third person. that way, personal information and ways to speak about a person are circulated to the precise degree of specificity the employee wishes, without any gender quizzes.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:55 PM on May 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think it depends on your particular work environment. If it's the sort of office that's friendly to gender-nonconforming people, or if it's work that engages significantly with the LGBTQ community, then the question makes sense in context. In places that are more mainstream or conventional, it can be difficult because you may be forcing some employees to out themselves in a space that isn't safe for them (for instance, a trans employee going stealth or who isn't out to their work colleagues yet).
posted by divabat at 5:00 PM on May 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm nonbinary, and getting my co-workers to use my pronouns was and continues to be a struggle that deeply affects how safe and welcome I feel at work, and thus my ability to do my job well. Thank you for considering this and asking for it to be put in place.

I'm at a loss for how this is forward or intrusive, since people will be using pronouns in the office to refer to one another and you would want them to be correct.

On preview, this allows the employee to state what pronouns they want to be used for them at work, so I wouldn't see how it forces anyone to out themselves, but I may be missing something.

I'll note that in trans spaces, some people don't like the term "preferred pronouns", since it can indicate that someone's gender identity is a choice, or that respecting them is optional. For example, you would never say that a cis guy "prefers 'he' prounouns". However, like anything else related to trans stuff, folks have lots of different, and often strongly held opinions.

I think that the more important thing is the overall work culture, and how well folks do at treating trans or gender nonconforming folks respectfully, but I, for one, would see and appreciate this as a signal that someone had put some thought into making me feel welcome.

I'm also glad to answer questions about this by memail if it'd help.
posted by ITheCosmos at 5:06 PM on May 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

Another thing to consider might be to have everyone put their pronouns in their email signature. I have my pronouns (they/them) in my email signature at work, and it'd make me feel a lot less weird if all my cis co-workers did as well. (It's also useful in general, since even among cis folks, you can't always infer someone's gender from their name, in case you want an argument for people who are perhaps resistant to making changes only on the basis of trans folks' safety and comfort).
posted by ITheCosmos at 5:11 PM on May 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

I am a trans person, albeit binary (he/him) and I think this is great. I would feel much more comfortable working for your company if I saw that.

If you have honorifics on your form (Mr., Mrs., Ms.), I'd also suggest adding Mx. since that is coming into wider use. (Likewise using Latinx, if you ask about ethnicity.)

It's also useful in general, since even among cis folks, you can't always infer someone's gender from their name

For real. I worked with a lot of people from different cultures and ethnicities, and not knowing their pronouns led to some awkward emails.
posted by AFABulous at 5:13 PM on May 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

Absolutely not a lawyer, but my thinking is that this might be better handled by having a section in the employee handbook about gender diversity, acceptance and generally being welcoming to non-cis people

"We at 13 corp value all people of all identities and ask everyone on the team to be sensative to those of nontraditional lifestyles and ways of presenting themselves"

Or however HR lawyers would phrase it.
posted by Jacen at 5:16 PM on May 28, 2017

If you ask people to put them in their email signature, that would be a great opportunity for education on how to conjugate various pronouns; just include the instructions with the request.
posted by AFABulous at 5:16 PM on May 28, 2017

How are you going to attempt to influence the culture at your organization? It sounds like this is not a particularly accepting organization given your description of the lead counsel. If you can't influence the culture, then eventually enforcement of this policy is going to come up. When that happens, is your corporate management going to have your back in enforcing the policy? It should be noted that the number of transgender and non-binary people is much lower than the number of hateful trolls in the world; it is likely that if you have to deal with this policy, it'll be with someone acting in bad faith rather than good faith.

In this particular case, an unenforced policy is worse than no policy at all. At least with no policy, a closeted person can realize that the organization is not friendly to them and can act accordingly. With an unenforced policy, they may listen to their HR person describe all the progressive viewpoints at the organization, publicly come out as a response, and then find out that reality isn't as friendly as they perceived.
posted by saeculorum at 5:50 PM on May 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

People seem to be jumping to conclusions that you're trying to do something more than what you're actually suggesting:

I just want to add a line to our personnel form that asks new hires their preferred pronoun.

I would just use "Pronouns," rather than "Preferred Pronoun." If I were the hiring/HR person, I would also prepare a very light explanation about what you mean, to keep it from being a big deal to cis people ("You know, should people refer to you as 'she,' 'they,' 'he,' etc." said in a light tone of voice).
posted by lazuli at 6:14 PM on May 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

Perhaps the Transgender Law Center in Oakland would have some advice and guidance for you?

Echoing the above that lately there's been a shift away from the phrase "preferred pronoun" in favor of just "pronoun" ("what are your pronouns" rather than "what is your preferred pronoun") with the idea that "preferred pronoun" sort of deprecates folks who are trans and/or use a pronoun that others might not expect--it's not what they "prefer" it's just the correct pronoun, period. It might be worth taking that into account for any forms you might create, since "preferred pronouns" will likely start to seem dated soon.
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:15 PM on May 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

In places that are more mainstream or conventional, it can be difficult because you may be forcing some employees to out themselves in a space that isn't safe for them (for instance, a trans employee going stealth or who isn't out to their work colleagues yet).

Add me to the list of trans people saying "I can't imagine a situation where this would out someone."

For context: Every job application I've filled out asks for my legal sex. This information is included in Social Security checks, meaning if you list a sex that doesn't match your Social Security record you will be outed. I'm a woman who's still legally male, so I already have to out myself as trans every time I apply for a job.

By comparison, a voluntary request for people to list the pronoun they currently prefer to use at work? With no ability to check that pronoun against any kind of public record? Is not at all intrusive, and is honestly something I would greatly appreciate. If I'm already telling you on my application that I'm legally male, please, please also let me tell you that I use she/her pronouns at work.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:43 PM on May 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

Jacen, I believe your heart is in the right place but whoa, "nontraditional lifestyles" would be extremely offensive to trans people. Your gender identity is not a "lifestyle," it just is what it is. Why should mine be "nontraditional"?

I propose:

"We at 13 corp value diversity, and we ask everyone to respect other team members' gender identities and expressions, for example, by using the pronouns they specify."

(I am also not a lawyer.)
posted by AFABulous at 7:11 PM on May 28, 2017 [10 favorites]

(To make another analogy: in most situations, telling someone your pronouns gives them less information about you than telling them whether you use Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Mx., Rev., Dr., or whatever else. So if asking someone's honorific isn't intrusive or illegal, surely asking someone's pronouns shouldn't be seen as intrusive or illegal either. It might fluster people because they're not accustomed to being asked, but that doesn't make it ethically or legally problematic.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:20 PM on May 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Our office added an option for people to add pronouns to their work signatures. Not everyone did, but plenty decided to.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:52 PM on May 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

My big liberal corporate workplace has a spot on the employee directory for pronouns. I'd say like 30% of our workforce fills them in.
posted by potrzebie at 7:55 PM on May 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Fwiw, stating pronouns on forms and in office meetings/introductions is fairly standard in my neck of the woods (higher ed in WA state). Yeah, you get some pushback from older folks sometimes, but I mostly deal with employees age 20-30, and a lot of them are used to doing this in college. I also agree that knowing pronouns is super useful when filling out onboarding paperwork for new employees whom I may not have met in person yet.

My advice: For the form, give examples of pronouns, including they/them/theirs. My understanding of the phrase "preferred pronouns" was that this meant, "I prefer they/them, but she/her/hers is also acceptable." I also think it's a good idea to back up this new practice by modeling the behavior in person, too, when you bring a new person on board. Can staff meetings include a introduction round where everyone states their name, pronouns, title/position? There will be some awkwardness for people who've never thought about personal pronouns, but you will be there to briefly explain the new practice and smoothly move to the next person.
posted by book 'em dano at 8:02 PM on May 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I really don't think that "google it or drop it but don't bug me about that until you've educated yourself" is the way to promote a respectful environment. It's not all that unusual for a person to have never heard of/experienced using non-binary pronouns and if you, an HR professional, want to enact change in your workplace, you should do so with patience and education, without being passive aggressive or making your more clueless/ignorant colleagues feel like they've done something wrong.
posted by acidic at 8:05 PM on May 28, 2017 [9 favorites]

Respectful. Ask people for the name they'd like to go by and the pronouns they use. Encourage it to go in signatures. And def just use the correct name + pronoun in welcome emails. So easy and helpful.
posted by (Over) Thinking at 8:31 PM on May 28, 2017

Response by poster: Acidic, this was after quite a while of describing the issue to him and him flatly not believing me, and then spending a lot of time and energy expatiating on the theme of "'they' always takes a plural verb" and "this is why we have 'he/she'" and "you can always use 'one'" and me patiently explaining why each of those doesn't work. The "shut up and google it" came at about the third round of the same objections. This is his pattern on ANY unfamiliar topic (such as his recent discovery that people say "no worries" to mean "you're welcome", which he concluded had started some time in the last year, as well as his belief that the "paintbrush" function in Word is a recent addition because I showed it to him last week) and it is not the pattern of the company as a whole and I often wonder how he was hired.
posted by janey47 at 8:37 PM on May 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

I would only do this if they understand that you are going to share this information with everyone in the office and you expect everyone to actually comply. Otherwise, you are just going to create problems for yourself. Depending how large your workplace is and whether it has a lot of trans or non-binary people, getting everyone to do this, even from the standpoint of remembering to do it because it's an unfamiliar way to use language to some people, might be tough. I think if a new hire feels this is important, they should come forward. Maybe you should just have an open-ended special needs/requests question.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:28 PM on May 28, 2017

Re. AppleTurnover's comment, I think that putting this in place BEFORE you have an openly trans or gender-nonconforming employee is a great idea. Waiting until someone comes out will force that employee to do all the work of educating their colleagues, which is exhausting.
posted by ITheCosmos at 5:09 AM on May 29, 2017 [9 favorites]

So let me ask you this. How do you intend to scale this? Are you just going to remember everyone's preferred pronouns? Is there a space in your HRIS that would ensure you don't forget? Are you going to enforce others to use this person's preferred pronoun? How? Will there be consequences for not using the correct pronouns?

I just say this because there is a lot to think about besides just asking the question.

If you are still a small company one of the things that I've done in the past is have each new hire write up a 3-5 sentence biography IN THIRD PERSON that we then emailed out to everyone when they started. Which means every person basically announced to the whole company what their preferred pronoun was without having to ask or make a special announcement or anything.
posted by magnetsphere at 2:34 PM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Many people still don't know what pronouns refer to so you'll have to explain what that means, why it's useful and how the data is used. Also many people like to use more than one type. Also people's pronouns can change and new ones crop up. Maybe assume there are people who, given the choice, want no pronouns or perhaps all of them.
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:33 PM on May 29, 2017

If an example helps, I recently received an email with the sender's pronouns in the signature line in the form of a link to this page.

That page also includes the section "Will I be required to write down my pronouns?" which appears to address the issue that some people may not be comfortable with sharing, and maybe addresses the intrusiveness concerns you have.
posted by bbq_ribs at 5:08 PM on May 30, 2017

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