DEI and the Law: Pronouns in the Workplace
Ciana Williams, MEA’s Senior Employment Counsel and Diversity and Inclusion Leader, talked about the importance of pronouns in the workplace at our 14th Annual HR & Employment Law Conference.
According to Ciana, there are four major elements impacting diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace: politics, generational trends, personal identity, and everything else (business needs, customer needs, individual experiences, etc). Employers need to think about these topics and ask themselves these questions: Where are we versus where we want to be? Are we as a company doing enough to ensure our employees are not experiencing discrimination in the workplace?
To understand the experiences of your LGBTQ+ employees, Ciana explains that you must ask questions of and listen to your employees. Your employees can be an excellent source of information when it comes to understanding historically marginalized groups, including “people of color, women, LGBTQ+, low-income individuals, the disabled, senior citizens, and many more.” These groups have been misrepresented in traditional historical settings and even have been prevented from fully participating in society due to different laws, systems, and societal practices.
During the presentation, Ciana shared statistics from a National Public Opinions Study by Gruberg, Mahowald, and Haplin regarding the State of the LGBTQ+ Community in 2020. Some of these statistics included:
- One in three LGBTQ+ Americans report facing discrimination of some kind over the last year. 36% of those individuals specifically identified the workplace as the source of discrimination.
- Three in five transgender Americans report facing discrimination of some kind over the last year.
- 54% of LGBTQ+ Americans hide their relationships or alter their personal or work lives to avoid discrimination.
Employee DEI Guidelines
Companies must implement diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives into their workplaces. Ciana explains that employers should use these guideposts to determine which direction is best for its business and employees:
- Cultural Shifts around Personal Identity
- Anti-Discrimination Laws
- Organizational Values
- Business Needs, Goals, & Growth Opportunities
- Unique Workforce and Customer Needs
To better understand and connect with LGBTQ+ members of your workforce, it is also important to know the different third person pronouns that are increasingly used in work settings:
Allowing employees to identify their preferred pronouns is widely viewed as a sign of support for LGBTQ+ employees and contributes to a work environment in which all gender identities are welcomed and accepted.
Key Terms to Know
Understanding different classifications surrounding sex and gender is key to understanding these issues. For example:
- Gender Binary: The classification of gender into two distinct opposite forms of masculine and feminine, whether by social system or cultural belief.
- Gender Spectrum: This classification visualizes gender as a continuum stretching from men/masculine to women/feminine.
- Non-Binary: Gender identities other than man and woman.
- Sex: This is often used to refer to the sex assigned to an individual at birth, but it also includes gender identity.
- Gender Identity: This is a person’s understanding of their gender or their perceived gender. It can include male, female, combination of male and female, neither male or female (agender or gender neutral), a gender different from a person’s assigned sex at birth, and transgender.
- Transgender: This describes an individual whose gender identity is different from their sex assigned at birth.
- Cisgender: Describes a person whose self-identity conforms to their biological sex.
Bostock and the EEOC
In 2020, the United States Supreme Court held in Bostock v. Clayton that “discrimination based on homosexuality or transgender status necessarily entails discrimination based on sex; the first cannot happen without the second.” Years prior to Bostock, the EEOC had issued guidance prohibiting employers from “failing or refusing to use a transgender employee’s correct name and pronoun if doing so is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment.”
Ciana concludes her talk with employer recommendations regarding the use of employee pronouns in the workplace. Ciana explains that when an employee is transitioning genders, at the appropriate time, it is permissible to respectfully ask, “What name and pronouns do you wish to use after your transition?” Additionally, many employers allow or encourage employees to identify their prefeed pronouns in email signatures and other similar locations. With any communication around pronoun policies, you should remind employees of your organization’s non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies to minimize conflicts. It is also important to remember that refusing to use one’s correct pronouns and preferred name can, in and of itself, be considered an act of discrimination.
Employers should consult with experienced human resources professionals and/or labor and employment counsel with any questions regarding DEI policies. For MEA members, the Hotline and a Member Legal Services attorney are available to provide this assistance.