Dilemma of the Month: How to Best Handle Gender-Neutral Pronouns

by Evil HR Lady on March 11, 2020

I have an employee who would like to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns — a singular “they” instead of “he” or “she,” for example — but not all of my managers are following the request. The employee has come to me to point this out. Some coworkers also aren’t accommodating the request, making this employee feel excluded. What is our obligation to this employee, and do we face possible legal repercussions?

To read my answer, click here: Dilemma of the Month: How to Best Handle Gender-Neutral Pronouns

Leave your own in the comments!

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Fred March 11, 2020 at 11:31 am

I’ve always had problems using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun – I’ve always seen it as plural. I’m neurodivergent and it simply isn’t easy for me to adapt to it – I would slip, if I had to use it regularly, and I would bitterly resent it if they saw me as discriminating … because I wouldn’t be discriminating.

Frankly, I’d tell them to understand that not everyone will be able to adapt instantly and to be understanding as, no matter how they feel about it, the rest of the world will see them as overreacting at best and an outright bully at worst.

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grannybunny March 11, 2020 at 12:25 pm

I agree that it may take time for everyone to adapt and that there will probably be slip-ups. As the article pointed out, discussions should be had with the individual as to how they would like any slip-ups to be handled. But, I disagree that “the rest of the world will see them as overreacting at best and an outright bully at worst” for insisting on being referred to by their preferred pronoun. I’m part of “the rest of the world” — as is the EHRL — and we wouldn’t. Nor, do I believe that most people would judge someone dealing with gender identity issues so harshly. Live and let live.

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Anon March 11, 2020 at 2:21 pm

Intentions matter. If you are making a good faith effort to use the preferred pronoun, they will take notice and understand the occasional slip-up. And of course, a quick, simple apology after a noted slip-up goes a long way.

In this particular situation it sounds like the managers have made little to no effort to address the employee with the pronoun they prefer.

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Kathy March 11, 2020 at 5:09 pm

Me too. I wish we’d landed on “zee” or “zhe” or one of those other potential non-gendered pronouns which could have been paired with a singular verb: “zhe is.” Singular “they” isn’t used with a singular verb: “Chris prefers ‘they’ and they is in the lobby right now.” We still pair it with a plural verb (“They are in the lobby now”) as if non-gendered people ran around with clones. It’s not that I object to a non-gendered pronoun, just that I wish that the popular vote hadn’t landed on plural “they/them.” Still, if Chris asks for “they,” they deserve (not deserves) to have people use it.

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BethRA March 11, 2020 at 7:31 pm

How would you feel if someone insisted on calling you something besides Fred? Or felt you weren’t pronouncing Fred correctly and insisted on using the pronunciation they felt was more appropriate?

Look, I’ve struggled with a few people’s pronouns, too, and literally had to practice talking about one of my colleagues to get it right. But as much as I appreciated their patience in those situations, it really was/is on me to get it right – becasuse it’s the kind and respectful thing to do.

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Fred March 12, 2020 at 7:00 pm

It depends, for various reasons.

My surname is very uncommon outside my dad’s home county. I was the only one with that surname throughout primary school, secondary school and university. It gets misspelt or mispronounced a LOT. I generally ignore it unless it’s on legal documents – someone leaving off an ‘l’ can be a major headache further down the line. So yes, I understand both how irritating someone might find to be addressed by the wrong pronouns and, at the same time, how easily it could happen. If you present as a man, people will think of you as ‘he’ and use that pronoun unless you correct them.

I also have a terrible habit of mixing up my son’s names. (And no, they’re not twins; there’s three years between them.) It is frustrating for me personally when that happens, for obvious reasons. I do my best to avoid it and it still happens.

If someone wants to be addressed as ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ I will do my best to honour their wishes. I’m not a jerk. But, like I said, I find it very hard to wrap my head around the concept of ‘they’ as a personal pronoun and experience tells me I will slip. If they are the type of person to demand that using the wrong pronoun merits a serious reprimand or career-ending punishment, they will not be my friend. I will see them as a dangerous manic, if not an outright jerk. And yes, I will keep my distance because I fear what will happen if I slip.

The blunt truth is that, if you change your name or your gender or whatever, there will be people who will address you by your former [whatever]. They’d do this out of habit – they knew you as Alexander before you became Alexandra – or because you look like a [whatever] or … well, whatever. And if you act absurdly touchy about this, people will just think you’re a jerk.

Most people aren’t jerks. They’ll try to accommodate you. But if you act like a jerk, they’ll eventually start being jerks right back.

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Who they? March 13, 2020 at 9:06 am

No problem: I use “they” because I’m addressing their eyes; or ears; or neurodivergent cerebral hemispheres…

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Observer March 11, 2020 at 11:55 pm

You are factually wrong about “the rest of the world”. Sure, some people would see it that way, but many other would not.

If you have a problem adjusting, then you apologize and explain that it’s hard for you to rewire your use of language. And the MAKE THE EFFORT.

Think about it this way. If you grew up thinking that the line in the spangled banner is “danzerly light” rather than “Dawn’s early light”, it would not be a big deal. But if you declared that you are NOT going to try to sing it correctly because that’s how you always thought it was and it’s hard for you to adjust, people would probably not care to much but you will be seen as odd.

Now, if you always thought that Suzanne’s name is actually Suzana, and you only realized today that you are wrong, and you declared that you are not going to change the name you use because you are neurodivergent and this is hard, so Suzanne is just going to have to live with it, you would be very rude. And in a lot of workplaces, you would be creating a problem for yourself. Because it’s on you to work on the problem. If you TRY and occasionally slip, that would be different.

You can’t demand understanding while insisting that the person who wants to be addressed a certain way is a bully for expecting you to make that effort. Understanding goes two ways.

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Bobboccio March 11, 2020 at 2:06 pm

What if someone wanted to use a non-typical pronoun like, “Lord”? Is it ever appropriate to say… “is that really how you identify, or are you just having a laugh?” I mean, part of me is thinking, that can’t be real. The other part says… I would have said “that can’t be real” about someone using “they” or “zee” five years ago, and who am I to tell people how they self identify?

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Goober March 11, 2020 at 4:29 pm

I’d suggest you go look up the meme about identifying as an Apache attack helicopter, but even the URL isn’t really work safe.

But no matter how ridiculous someone’s preference is – to me – the effect on me for honoring it is basically zero, so it comes down to good manners. And what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so perhaps we should mandate that *everyone* be referred to as “it.”

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Just Me March 11, 2020 at 2:55 pm

Not that I’d suggest this in a work situation, but when my husband and I were tossing around baby names, one we were considering was Ella Grace. My mom asked if she could call the baby Grace because she didn’t like Ella. I told her that if she did, we’d call her Grandma Potato Head. If you don’t respect a persons name/pronoun preference, maybe they won’t respect yours.

Change is hard, but particularly in the case of managers, there is a responsibility to model behavior that reflects the employers culture. And if that is a culture of respect and inclusivity (as it should be) this should continue to be addressed with the manager until it changes.

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cej March 20, 2020 at 1:54 am

I was taught that it is BAD MANNERS to refer to a person in their presence by a pronoun. So for example if there are three people in the conversation and John is within hearing distance you do not speak about John and refer to him in the conversation without using his name. If John can hear you, any reference to John uses his name. Not he/she/they. So for example if John, Sally and Dave are all present and the topic is John’s schedule and Sally says to Dave in front of John “he is suppose to be here at 8 o’clock. That is RUDE. Sally should “John is suppose to be here at 8 o’clock. Problem solved.

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