How DEI Leaders Are Integrating Gender-Inclusive Pronouns into Workplace Culture - Senior Executive

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DEI Training 11 min

How DEI Leaders Are Integrating Gender-Inclusive Pronouns into Workplace Culture

Five chief diversity officers outline how they're weaving pronouns into their work culture.

by Taylor Odisho on June 12, 2023


  • Companies that strive for increased employment and wage equity for transgender people could boost annual consumer spending by $12 billion per year.

  • Use onboarding, inclusive management, and inclusive language training as opportunities to present pronoun training and usage to your employees.

  • Offer comprehensive mental health and health care benefits as well as inclusive parental leave benefits to further support nonbinary and transgender employees.

We know that an inclusive work culture is one that values all employees equally, from how they’re paid and promoted to how they’re addressed. Yet, according to McKinsey, “cisgender employees make 32% more money a year than transgender employees,” and more than 50% of transgender employees are uncomfortable being out at work. 

Organizations that set a tone in which nonbinary employees are not respected do a disservice to employees. When Darian Sarellano, who identifies as they/them, entered their role with a tech company that challenged they/them pronouns, a tone was set for Sarellano that told them this was not a place for trans and nonbinary people. 

“The damage was done within the first two weeks; that trust was automatically severed,” says SarelIano, who is now the COO at The Mathpath. “It’s so important when an employee joins that there’s a precedence for being inclusive and not just having it be performative.”

Championing gender diversity by using employees’ correct pronouns in all settings is as important as pronouncing someone’s name correctly. Not only does it build an inclusive culture, but companies that strive for increased employment and wage equity for trans people could also increase annual consumer spending by $12 billion per year, according to McKinsey. Pew Research Center’s data shows that 1.6% of U.S. adults identify as transgender or nonbinary.

While you may be tempted to create a pronoun training program or hire a consultant to foster a gender-inclusive work culture, Sarellano says the best course of action is to normalize nonbinary pronouns by weaving them into quotidian work experiences, including team meetings and presentations. Senior Executive DEI spoke with five chief diversity officers to outline how. 

Find advocates and allies within your organization.

It’s crucial to find a champion who will help you build a more inclusive culture for trans and nonbinary employees. If you don’t feel comfortable leading the charge, find another executive who might. It could be another member of your DEI team or the executive sponsor of your Pride employee resource group (ERG).

“If you can’t find a champion or an ally at the company, and you need to bring in a consultant, that should be a huge, glaring red flag that there’s an equity issue within the company,” Sarellano says. 

However, it can be helpful to have a consultant lead pronoun training. “Bringing in outside folks oftentimes allows a different conversation [to happen] than if you’re running [pronoun training] internally,” says Jes Osrow, (she/her), co-founder of the consulting firm The Rise Journey. 

Osrow references Uber’s head of diversity, equity, and inclusion, who was put on leave after leading controversial “Don’t Call Me Karen” sessions. “Most likely, she wasn’t engaging an outside organization to make sure [she was] on the right track. It’s easy to get wrapped up in whatever your internal politics are, so bringing somebody else from external in who can say, ‘Here’s why pronouns aren’t political. Here’s how it impacts me. Here’s how it might impact you,’ having that real touch matters. Then you can build on it.”

If you don’t have an advocate in mind, and you don’t want to hire a consultant, consider collaborating with your Pride ERG. (If you don’t have one, that may be another red flag for incoming employees.) You can host programming centered around pronouns. A great opportunity to do so is Pride Month in June. 

Related article: Pride Month Guide

Osrow shares an example of how an LGBTQIA+ ERG within a mental health care company led to a gender-inclusive product. ERG members pointed out nonbinary people were looking for pride-friendly therapists and offered a solution for how to find them within their product. “If we add people’s pronouns, a therapist is going to see that somebody goes by they/them and they can opt out of that match, which allows that person who does go by they/them to find a therapist who is more accepting.” She adds the organization then offered pronoun training to help employees understand the product update.

Integrate gender-inclusive learning into onboarding.

An opportune strategy for making nonbinary and trans employees feel welcome is including language around pronouns during onboarding. “It’s about making a person feel comfortable and one of the easiest ways to do that is to put your pronouns in all of [your organization’s] systems; add it to your signature in Zoom and Slack, and have the process documented for new employees coming in,” Sarellano says. 

Taking these proactive steps immediately communicates to employees that your organization is a safe space to be themselves. Managers are also responsible for making sure their new team members feel comfortable. Sarellano encourages managers to say to new employees, “I don’t want to make any assumptions. Do you mind telling me what pronouns I should use for you?”

Three steps you can take to create a gender-inclusive workplace:

  1. Ask employees to add their pronouns to their work communications.
  2. Encourage training managers to ask new employees to share their pronouns during an initial meeting. 
  3. Incorporate pronoun guidance in your company’s internal learning management system (LMS).

Once you decide how to incorporate pronouns into onboarding, standardize it and make it a policy. Osrow advises using your internal management system to house this information. Organizations can outline where they list pronouns, why, and how new hires can do the same.

“Do it once and make it scalable,” says Osrow. “I find, oftentimes, people just don’t know where to put [pronoun guidelines] or where to use it…From an admin structure standpoint, having that basic LMS works great for understanding and contextualizing what pronouns mean to a specific community.”

Osrow suggests adding an onboarding checklist item to include pronouns in employee profiles but allowing employees the option to list N/A if they aren’t comfortable with sharing their pronouns. What’s important is that you’re including a field for pronouns. Those who choose to list theirs can then find a community within your organization.

Sarellano adds you can weave pronoun training into inclusive management or inclusive language training. “Lead by example. It’s the best way to normalize [pronouns] and to keep it at the forefront of other people’s minds,” says Sarellano. “If you have two or three new team members join, then [share it] in your team Slack channel. ‘Hey, just a quick reminder, I add pronouns to all of my systems.’ Then, as a show of allyship, you could give a reason why that’s important. It shows you’re leading by example.”

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Weave pronouns into everyday work experiences.

Normalize pronoun usage by weaving it into employees’ everyday work experience. For example, Zillow offers optional virtual pronoun training through Zillow University, its internal training portal. Zillow’s vice president of talent success, Corina Kolbe (she/her), says one of the most profound moments post-training was CEO Rich Barton introducing himself with his pronouns at an all-hands meeting. 

“It was like the gates were opened,” Kolbe says. “It gave people permission and excitement to start to share that.” Since then, Kolbe says Zillow has incorporated pronouns into employees’ email signatures, Zoom names, and the Zall Wall, the company’s intranet. “You can add your preferred pronouns there, which is really cool because it’s there for everyone to see when they look you up with all your other information.”

Kolbe adds at the beginning of company meetings, people always introduce themselves using their pronouns as well, which has created a community within their organization. “Another neat story was one of the leaders that I work with, her children use they/them pronouns, and she said how much it touched her that we were building a community at Zillow where she felt comfortable sharing her pronouns and speaking about her children.”

Pride Month in June is another opportunity to host programming centered around pronouns and gender inclusivity. Henry Jones (he/him), the senior director of diversity and inclusion at package goods company Conagra, collaborates with Center on Halsted, an LGBT community center. A representative of the community center presents the history behind the LGBTQ+ community, communicates how employees can be allies, and reiterates the importance of recognizing people’s pronouns. 

Jones, who uses he/him pronouns, adds that on Transgender Day of Remembrance in November, Conagra also rolled out a toolkit for employees. The toolkit reiterated why it was important to recognize pronouns and how to add them to employees’ signatures. 

Offer benefits that support transgender and nonbinary employees and their families.

Another component of creating a gender-inclusive work culture is offering comprehensive benefits. Sarellano shares that if you want to make a guide that outlines how you’re supporting trans and nonbinary employees, make sure you list the benefits available to them. 

“You want to take the emotional labor off the newly outed individual by creating that guide and having examples of different forms of communication you’re going to need when you transition at work,” Sarellano says. 

Osrow outlines additional considerations for you and HR:

  • Healthcare benefits that cover gender-affirming care 
  • Mental health benefits, including stipends to cover copays
  • Inclusive parental leave benefits 

Aubrey Blanche (she/her), the senior director of people operations and strategic programs at Culture Amp and a Senior Executive DEI Think Tank member, says the company also offers emergency relocation support. “[It could be used if] an employee is a caregiver to a transgender child and lives in a location that is legislatively hostile to that child or doesn’t allow that child to get necessary health care. If the employee chose to relocate to a safer location where [Culture Amp] operates, we would provide some financial assistance to help them do that.”

How to address pushback from other executives and employees.

Unfortunately, using people’s preferred pronouns has become a hot-button issue in the U.S. There may be pushback from C-suite members, executives, and employees who don’t understand why they should invest any time or effort into talking about pronouns.

“Politics definitely challenge this and I have post-survey results from sessions of ours that say, ‘Why are we even learning this? Let’s put our money somewhere more helpful,’” Osrow says. If money is an issue, take the previously outlined steps to integrate gender-inclusive language and pronouns into your work culture, use online resources such as LinkedIn Learning, and lean on your ERGs. 

Don’t shy away from speaking about the importance of pronouns and gender-inclusive language from a retention perspective to drive the point home for your colleagues. A LinkedIn and YouGov survey of 1,086 LGBTQ+ workers found that approximately 75% of respondents said it’s important they work at a company where they can express their identity, and 65% said they would leave their current role if they could not do so, which could be a detrimental financial cost. According to Gallup, it costs one-half to two times an employee’s salary to replace them.

Osrow reiterates it’s about finding a balance in what you require employees to do and what you ask them to do. “The HR admin piece of it is saying, ‘Hey, we do this, put [your pronouns] there. We use this, and it’s a standard company thing.’ There’s no politics behind it, we just do it. It’s like adding your name to an HR system or your email or your T-shirt size.” Osrow adds that formalized pronoun training should always be optional because forcing employees to join can take away from the training’s productivity. 

Sarellano offers a two-pronged approach to getting support from executives and employees. The first is creating a base-level understanding of pronouns. They suggest using the gender bear as a guide. “It’s a great visual tool you can use to explain to people the difference between gender identity, social presentation…and sexual orientation, and it parses out what those things are.”

The second prong is creating a trans inclusion guide and getting the C-suite to sign off on it. “Say, ‘This is the standard in which these people are going to be included and this is the way in which we support them,’” advises Sarellano.

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