Note: Inc.'s Ask a 20-Something series offers sage advice for navigating all manner of workplace issues, from the perspective of a young employee.
Dear 20-Something: I'm hiring for a new entry-level position, and recently found a great young candidate who is gender non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. That would be a first for my company, and for me, personally. If I make the hire, how should my employees and I go about addressing the pronouns?
This is apparently a hot topic: I've seen a lot of online chatter recently about gender pronouns in the workplace. And earlier this month, Merriam-Webster proclaimed "they" as 2019's word of the year. After that announcement, Inc.'s Tatyana Bellamy-Walker wrote a four-part guide to using "they" in the workplace, which I recommend reading.
One of those four sections revolves around asking employees for their gender pronouns--like she/hers, he/his or they/them--in a survey and including them in your company's directory. That's just one of the steps worth taking before your new employee first walks through the door.
You'll need to work with HR, for example, to update the language in your company handbook--both to ensure inclusivity and compliance with anti-discrimination and anti-harrassment laws.
You'll also need to work on the way you approach your employees as a leader. That's the trickier part. I get it. Adding extra words to your standard introduction, which you've been using (without problems!) your whole life, might seem silly or uncomfortable. Here's the thing: It's not about you, and it could make a world of difference to someone else. You're responsible for setting the tone in your workplace. Not your employees, not the incoming hire, not anybody else. You.
I actually have some leadership experience in this arena as a high school athletics coach. Over the past half-decade, I've worked with multiple athletes who use they/them pronouns. In doing so, I've learned a couple important lessons.
First: When people feel uncomfortable, they often respond with humor. An offhand joke from just one employee--like, "What, you can't tell I'm a guy? I need to spell it out for you?"--can set the exact wrong tone from Day 1. So before the new employee arrives, here's the message you need to send to your current colleagues: Gender pronouns aren't a joke. You don't need to make a big deal out of showing how into voicing your pronouns you are. You do, however, need to take the issue seriously.
Second: It's your job to set a positive example for the rest of your workforce. When you start introducing yourself with your pronouns, you'll be announcing that it's a perfectly standard and normal way of speaking in your workplace. You'll also be encouraging your employees to avoid assuming what other people's pronouns are, which is where some of the most awkward interactions can happen.
You might forget every once in a while. Relax. That's fine. You won't get a black mark on your mythical permanent record.
But if you can do those few small things to make a new employee feel comfortable--and you should consult with them about what else you can do to make that happen--why wouldn't you? If their co-workers are joking about their gender identity, then regardless of what you think or feel, they will suffer. They won't be as productive or engaged as you'll need them to be. They won't be able to give you their best work, and that's not on them. It's on you.
Put simply: It's your job to make sure your employees are as well-positioned to succeed as humanly possible. So go out and get it done.
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