This bitesized guide offers an introduction to pronouns and how to use them in the workplace.
What are pronouns?
Pronouns are words we use in everyday language to refer to ourselves or others. They can be an important way to express your gender identity. ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘she/her’, ‘he/him’ and ‘they/them’ are some examples of pronouns.
‘They’ has been used as a singular pronoun since 1375! We use a singular ‘they’, ‘them’ or ‘their’ often. For example, if you find a jacket that was left behind in the office, you may ask: ‘Did someone leave their jacket here?’
Some trans and gender non-conforming people may use ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘theirs’ as personal pronouns. ‘They’ is considered a gender-neutral pronoun, compared to pronouns like ‘he/him’ or ‘she/her’ which are generally perceived as gendered terms.
Example: ‘Sarah works in our communications department. They delivered an informative presentation today about their most recent project.’
Some people may wish to use more than one set of pronouns to refer to themselves. For example, a gender non-conforming person may feel equally comfortable with they/them, he/him or she/her pronouns. Other trans and gender non-conforming people may not be out, so may use different pronouns so they’re comfortable in different situations. The Trevor Project’s research found that in the US ‘nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ youth who use pronouns outside of the binary opt to use combinations’.
If someone uses more than one set of pronouns, you can ask them what they would prefer you to use. They may prefer you use all of them interchangeably, or keep to one set. Remember that this can be contextual, for example because someone may use different pronouns at work or at home.
Example: ‘Reese has exceeded their targets this year. She plans to apply for a promotion soon.’
Not using pronouns
For some people, the correct way to refer to them is by using their name only. If you’re unsure of someone’s pronouns, you can also refer to them by name instead.
Example: ‘Jay is taking the minutes for Jay’s next meeting’.
Neopronouns are newer pronouns used by some to refer to themselves without the context of gender. Some examples are xe/xir or ze/zir, both pronounced zee and ze-er (rhymes with ‘here’). Some people may use a noun as a pronoun instead. Neopronouns are less common, but it is important to respect their usage. Read further guidance on use and pronunciation.
Example: ‘Raj has been successful in xir interview. Xe starts xir new job on Monday.’
Some languages may not have an established gender-neutral pronoun. In this case, you can simply ask the person how they would like to be referred to. Words used as gender neutral pronouns may exist, but not be common in usage. For example, some Welsh speakers may use the word ‘nhw’ as a gender-neutral pronoun. Seek to educate yourself on the language of the communities you are working with.
Pronouns in the workplace
Correct use of pronouns is key to helping all staff feel included at work. It can reassure trans and gender non-conforming colleagues that they are welcome and included in your organisation.
Here are some tips you can share with staff:
- If you’re not sure what a colleague’s pronouns are, ask them or listen to what pronouns the employee uses. You can also use gender neutral pronouns to refer to someone you’ve not had contact with yet, or simply refer to them by their name.
- Use a colleague’s correct pronouns or form of address once you’re aware of them. It may feel simpler to refer to everyone with gender neutral pronouns (e.g. they/them), but you could accidentally misgender someone by doing so.
- If you make a mistake when referring to a colleague, apologise, correct yourself and move on. Avoid apologising too much, as this can draw further attention to your mistake and make your colleague uncomfortable. Try practiscing referring to your colleague by their correct pronouns. Try this beyond your office space, perhaps by yourself or with other colleagues. For example: ‘This is my colleague Rhiannon, she booked the meeting room earlier.’
Repeatedly using an incorrect pronoun, however, can create a hostile environment for trans colleagues. We’d recommend being clear to colleagues on how this relates to your bullying and harassment policy.
Pronouns can be used to role model trans allyship. Consider introducing yourself with your name and pronouns at the start of a meeting. In a group setting, ask attendees to introduce themselves with names and pronouns if they feel comfortable doing so. Starting meetings this way can allow trans colleagues to introduce themselves without feeling pressured to bring up the use of pronouns first. This step may also help start conversations about how to use pronouns and why they matter. Encouraging other colleagues to do the same can help create a more trans-inclusive environment at work.
Consider creating and sharing templates for employees to include pronouns in their email signatures. For example, by writing ‘she/her’ next to their name, and sharing a link to information about pronouns – such as this article. You may have seen some social media accounts include their pronouns this way. This signifies your commitment to trans inclusion, and helps to prevent clients, customers, or employees from being referred to incorrectly.
Senior leaders can also role model this behaviour in internal and external communications, for example through email, in meetings, or during public speaking engagements. This allows all levels of an organisation to see that inclusion is a key component of your workplace culture.
If you do just one thing after reading this guide…
Share it with your friends, family and colleagues, or add the link to your email signature!
Want to take your work even further? Get in touch about Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme. The DC programme supports over 700 organisations across the UK and globally in working towards greater LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace.