It’s easy to forget that the goal of diversity and inclusion is to create a workplace environment where everyone can do their best work. A big part of that is not just how we communicate with each other, but also how we refer to people. That’s where gender pronouns come in.
As recruiters, we interview thousands of candidates. Most of the time we assume someone’s gender and use the corresponding pronoun such as “he” or “she.” As the conversation about workplace D&I continues, it’s critical to ask about gender pronouns. However, I understand that this topic is not only touchy and personal, but also confusing at times, especially when it comes to gender non-conforming or non-binary individuals.
In this article, I’m sharing the lessons I’ve learned when it comes to gender pronouns and how to talk about pronouns during the interview process. In particular, I share a few non-invasive ways you can ask about gender pronouns without making a candidate feel excluded or uncomfortable. However, I know I’m not an expert on this topic, so I’ve also included a few further reading resources if you’re curious and want to learn more.
What gender pronouns are — and what they mean in the workplace
Simply put: a pronoun is how people refer to themselves. It’s also how you refer to other people when you’re talking about them but they aren’t in the room.
While the term “gender pronouns” is relatively new in our common vocabulary, we’ve been using them our entire lives. “He said this,” or “She added this to the conversation.” Or, if we are talking about someone in a more abstract way or if we don’t know their gender, we’ll use “they” as a singular pronoun.
While the LGBTQ+ inclusion movement has brought gender pronouns to the forefront, recruiters can often come up against gender pronoun confusion when dealing with blind applications (that don’t have a name on them) or when looking at a name they are unfamiliar with.
Common gender pronouns:
- Male: He / Him / His.
- Female: She / Her / Hers.
- Neutral and/or plural: They / Them / Theirs.
You can learn about other pronouns, like “xir,” in the University of Milwaukee’s guide to gender pronouns.
Why asking about gender pronouns is important in the interview process
On a basic level, asking about gender pronouns in the interview process is asking how someone would like you to refer to them. That’s it. It’s the simple, respectful act of referring to someone in a way they’d like to be referred to.
This simple act is huge for people that don’t identify within the gender binary or use a pronoun that may not match what people assume based on how they look. While this is common in the trans and gender non-conforming community, it can also be part of the conversation for people who wear body coverings or clothing that makes it more difficult to assume their gender.
On top of the inclusion perspective, asking about gender pronouns is also about not making assumptions. The recruiting process is one of discovery and identifying if a candidate is a great fit for the role. The fewer assumptions we make going into the process, the better.
Examples of how to ask about gender pronouns in a non-invasive way
Kicking off the gender pronoun conversation doesn’t have to be awkward (you should never ask “so are you a boy or a girl?”). Here’s what you can do:
Add an optional pronouns field in job applications: If you already have a pronouns field but only have male and female pronouns, expand the list to include gender neutral pronouns and a “Prefer not to say” option for people who aren’t comfortable disclosing.
Put gender pronouns in your email signature: This simple act makes pronouns visible and part of the conversation. If a candidate sees pronouns in your email signature as you’re booking an interview, they might be more comfortable sharing their own.
Start all meetings with new people by sharing pronouns: Since pronouns are just a way to refer to someone (like their name), start meetings by sharing pronouns when new people are in the room. That way it becomes part of your culture, so it will naturally flow into the interview process, particularly for group interviews.
Share your pronouns first: When you introduce yourself in an interview, state your pronouns after your name and job title. While this may not guarantee the candidate responds with their pronouns, it makes pronouns a clear part of the conversation without any additional awkwardness.
What you should never do when it comes to gender pronouns at work
Just like there are ways to avoid awkwardness in the conversation, there are a few things you should never do.
Ask for someone’s “preferred” pronoun: This was a popular way of asking in the past, so you may have heard it before. However, asking for someone’s “preferred” pronoun trivializes their identity — as if it’s a choice or something you can choose to ignore.
Don’t out people: If you find out someone is trans or non-binary when having conversations about gender pronouns, keep it confidential. Someone’s gender has no bearing on their candidacy and therefore is not something you should disclose or talk about in debrief conversations with hiring managers.
Don’t assume someone’s identity: It’s recruiting 101 — don’t make assumptions. You’re there to learn about the candidate.
Don’t be afraid to apologize if you mess up: Pronouns can be difficult to remember at first, especially if you are hearing a new one for the first time. However, instead of making some big, grand apology, treat it like accidentally bumping into someone. It’s a simple mistake that requires a simple, honest apology with a commitment to not do it again.
Additional reading and resources
This guide certainly doesn’t cover all the in-depth elements of gender, pronouns, and the workplace. If you want to learn more, check out these fantastic resources:
- The 519 LGBTQ+ Centre’s Guide on Gender Pronouns
- The City of Toronto’s Guidelines for Accommodating Diverse Gender Expression
- The University of Milwaukee’s Guide to Gender Pronouns
- The University of Waterloo’s Guide to Writing About Gender and Gender Pronouns
- The City of Philadelphia’s Guide to Gender Pronouns
Thanks so much for reading!
One more thing — At Bloom, we support companies who aren’t ready for a full-time Head of Talent but need the leadership on an interim basis. We do the nitty-gritty foundational work like implementing the best tech, tools and processes that are infused with your org’s values. Just looking to hire for some key roles? We can assess, attract and hire top talent for your key roles giving you a competitive edge in this tight talent market — If you’re looking to up your talent game but aren’t ready for a full-time hire, connect with our Founder, Avery!