If you needed a better reason to create a more inclusive workplace, let Merriam-Webster's oft-cited word of the year be your final call to action. The word for 2019 is "they."
For the uninitiated, the singular "they" is a gender-neutral pronoun often referring to a non-binary or gender-fluid person, but people of all genders can use it. Just how to do that is another matter, as half measures or ill-conceived efforts can come off as inauthentic or worse, insulting.
As an employer, that's a mistake you need to avoid. So here are four things you can do to embrace "they" in your workplace.
1. Give employees a forum.
Employers need to create an outlet for solidarity in the workplace for transgender and non-binary people. For example on Transgender Day of Remembrance in November, Amazon hired Jono Vaughan, a Seattle-based artist, to create an art exhibition of clothing titled "Project 42" to shine a light on anti-trans violence in the U.S. Glamazon, Amazon's LGBTQ+ employee affinity group, also hosted its annual live-streamed conference on gender identity in November.
"Leaders [at Amazon] have empowered Glamazon to shine a light on the progress we've made in our own workplace, while also acknowledging the external conditions and losses our community continues to face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence," says Tori Dean Clements, a non-binary person who sits on Glamazon's 18-member board.
Similarly, the women-led workspace The Wing hosted a community discussion led by New York filmmaker Summer Minerva honoring at least 22 transgender people (mostly black transgender women) killed this year.
"We hold space for and lift up the individuals, families, communities and organizers who are working to raise awareness and doing the critical work of creating a safer society," says Yasmin Shahida, a Wing spokesperson in a statement. "To the trans and GNC [gender-non-conforming] members of our Wing community, we recommit to ensuring that The Wing will honor and protect your rights and personhood, and vow to always be a safer space for you."
2. Ask employees for pronouns.
Pronouns are small ways we affirm gender in everyday conversation. Misgendering is when a person uses the incorrect pronoun or noun to refer to a person's gender. This can be distracting and can trigger physical and mental symptoms of gender dysphoria--that is, discomfort caused by a mismatch between a person's gender and assigned sex at birth. It can also trigger persistent feelings of anxiety, panic attacks, stomach pains, suicidal thoughts, or depression.
Not only is it hurtful to allow misgendering to go on, in some states it can have a tangible monetary cost. In New York, people who misgender a person repeatedly can face fines up to $250,000, according to New York City's Human Rights Law on gender identity and gender expression.
Managers can prevent misgendering in the workplace by incorporating pronouns into the onboarding process. Ellevest, a startup investment firm for women founded by Sallie Krawcheck, uses a welcome survey asking new hires for their name, birthday, and pronouns. The pronouns are then included in the company's directory and introductions. The forms also have an option for people to select "non-binary" to describe their gender.
The change also makes business sense, Krawcheck says. "Research shows that diversity can drive innovation and returns for a company by challenging the status quo with new perspectives but only if everyone feels included and comfortable enough to voice their perspectives."
3.Update bathrooms and gender transition guidelines.
For a smoother workplace transition, companies can start by updating the signage on restrooms to have an all-gender symbol and include the phrase "This restroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or expression."
Levi Strauss & Co. goes a step further. In 2018, the apparel company released guidelines that explain appropriate terminology, dress code, restroom usage, and pronouns, along with information on what leaders and employees can expect in the workplace during an employee's gender transition.
4. Use gender-inclusive language.
Within the workplace, inclusive language is just as important. For example, don't make assumptions about a person's gender based on how they look. In the retail industry, most workers believe they're being respectful when addressing customers as "ma'am" and "sir" but this can unintentionally misgender people.
Other phrases like "ladies and gentlemen" can be replaced with "distinguished guests" or "folks" and "everyone." Additionally, a simple switch from saying "This lady or man in the green shirt" to "this person in the green shirt" can make all the difference for an inclusive workplace.
And that can lead to a thriving environment for everyone. "Diversity is linked to greater employee engagement, better performance, and more innovation," says Kim VanderVoort, a spokesperson for Ellevest. "Not to mention that it's the right thing to do."