Gender Pronouns – Understanding Their Many Hidden Problems (And how this program’s downsides may outweigh its benefits)

A think piece – for increasing awareness of the potential negative problems associated with using gender pronouns.

Encouraging or requiring the use of gender pronouns has recently been enthusiastically supported by many corporate DEI leaders. Unfortunately, I have found that their enthusiasm has not been tempered or supported with sufficient research on the many downsides associated with implementing a Preferred Gender Pronoun (PGP) effort. Therefore, this article will focus on identifying and understanding those underreported downsides and problems. And, of course, for the reader, a simple Google search will reveal the many positive aspects of such a program.

The Top 10 Possible Downsides Of Most Preferred Gender Pronoun Efforts (PGP) 

The most impactful problems created by implementing the typical gender pronoun program are listed below.

  1. It creates a great deal of disruption while you are only helping a small percentage of your employees – the primary goal of this gender pronoun effort is to help transgender employees make everyone aware of their current gender status. However, it’s important to note that all estimates of the size of this employee group place them at 5% below a company’s total workforce. And because every employee will be directly impacted by having to list their pronouns. The ratio of those employees helped versus those that will be disrupted make it difficult for this program to achieve a high ROI (when compared to other LGBTQ efforts). At the same time, supporters should realize that this major emphasis will likely distract from other established diversity efforts. In some cases, it can appear that “knowing the gender of an employee” is the most important thing to know about an employee (it isn’t).
  2. The negative employee backlash may actually decrease the inclusion of non-binary employees – the primary purpose of PGPs is to make the targeted employees with nontraditional gender statuses feel more comfortable and included. Unfortunately, there is little company data that proves that the desired result actually occurs. A significant percentage of other employees may view being coerced or forced to use gender pronouns as an affront to their political, cultural, or religious beliefs. Unfortunately, that negative employee backlash reaction may be directed towards the same employees you’re trying to help. The criticism may result in a lower level of feeling included and belonging. 
  3. Gender-revealing efforts run counter to our many years of minimizing any focus on gender – literally, for years, diversity and HR leaders have been actively working to hide the gender of applicants and employees. So purposely exposing an employee’s gender runs counter to our years of effort to become more gender-neutral. And because of this simultaneous and contradictory effort. Reaching the goal of being gender-neutral will be much more difficult.
  4. Invasion of employee privacy by collecting and revealing gender information – collecting and revealing any gender status information (that is not needed for benefits or insurance purposes) may be an invasion of each employee’s privacy. And it is questionable whether the foundational right to privacy should be violated across all employees when the open use of pronouns will help only a relatively small percentage of employees.
  5. You are essentially forcing “the outing” of some employees – normally, most companies purposely minimize revealing information on an employee’s gender. Therefore, when you require or encourage every employee to reveal their gender status in their electronic signatures. You are forcing or pressuring individual employees to reveal their previously unknown gender status. Resulting in the “forcing of some employees “out of the closet.”
  6. PGP usage will force some employees to lie – not every employee will feel comfortable revealing and distributing their actual gender status to others. Especially those that work in socially conservative regions and those with families that don’t know their real status. So, that means that for employees that remain staunchly against revealing their actual gender status. You are essentially forcing them to lie about themselves, likely increasing their “Gender Dysphoria” emotional stress. 
  7. Maintaining pronoun consistency with global employees will be difficult – for international employees that work in highly religious or conservative countries. They may face severe consequences when they reveal any non-binary gender status. In addition, unlike our 78 gender-defining English pronouns, the number of gender-defining pronouns will likely be extremely limited in many languages. And that will make it even more difficult for some international employees to feel comfortable with the accuracy of the pronouns available to them. 
  8. Any increased exposure to gender differences may harm the employee’s career – it is simply naïve to assume that some managers and coworkers (because of religious, political, cultural, or family traditions). Won’t think negatively and discriminate against an employee simply because they fit into an unusual gender category. And that resistance may negatively impact the employee’s well-being, productivity, and promotability. And even the active admission that they have some degree of confusion about their gender status. This may cause some managers to assume that they will also experience a high level of uncertainty or confusion when they must make business decisions. 
  9. Overly focusing on gender information may complicate the definition of diversity – because this pronoun program now receives such a strong emphasis. In some cases, it can make both regular and diverse employees assume that “knowing the gender of an employee” is the most important thing to know about an employee (it isn’t). In addition, the extreme focus on gender differences may reduce support and the funding for the more traditional diversity programs that have previously focused on women, minorities, and the neurodiverse.
  10. Be careful of applying this pronoun practice during the recruiting process – after an applicant becomes an employee, legally, it becomes much easier to collect and use the information on their gender. However, gathering and using any gender-related information on an individual candidate (including pronouns) raises many legal and discrimination issues. So, consult with a lawyer before you allow the usage of gender identification information anywhere during the hiring process.

Some Additional Lower Impact Pronoun Problems That You Will Likely Encounter

In addition to the above-listed top 10 problems, you should know that seven lower impact problems still can’t be ignored. They include:

  • You can’t allow any misgendering – regardless of whether company executives allow the use of gender pronouns. Employees have successfully sued over the intentional misuse of pronouns by other employees. It’s essential that you classify the practice of “misgendering” (the purposeful misuse of gender pronouns over time). As an unacceptable form of bullying and harassment based on gender (because it is covered under Title VII). 
  • Everyone must realize that the initial implementation of this program will create a great deal of workplace disruption and confusion – I’ve never met anyone involved in running a PGP program that didn’t admit that it caused a great deal of workplace disruption. Therefore, when you are making your business case. Be sure and include the number of hours that, at least initially, will be spent by managers and employees. Understanding how the pronoun process works and the numerous hours’ curious employees will spend learning what each of the possible 78 pronouns that are used actually means. 
  • Realize that even the program’s title can cause confusion – most companies label their effort as Preferred Gender Pronouns or PGP. But the program’s title itself can lead to confusion because it contains the word “preference.” Unfortunately, many will take this to mean that an individual employee’s actual gender is a choice. In fact, their physical gender status is instead a fact caused by biological factors. So, program leaders must clarify that the preference part of the title solely refers to the employee’s preference as to which of the 78 possible gender pronouns they want to use to best describe their gender status.
  • Understand that adding pronouns doesn’t always improve recruiting and retention – even though a well-run, data-driven, and transparent PGP effort will positively impact recruiting and retention. It’s equally important to realize that a poorly designed or hastily executed one will likely generate a great deal of negative publicity and poor ratings on employer comment sites like glassdoor.com. Hurting your image may reduce your potential applications among traditional and LBGTQ applicants.
  • Don’t forget to consider customer reactions – if your employees reveal their gender status through the use of pronouns to your customers. You must realize that some customers may also react negatively. So, you must take action to identify and minimize any gender issues caused by your customers. 
  • Also, consider no longer allowing the use of honorific titles – in some states like California, marital status is a protected class. Executives should also consider no longer allowing the internal use of Mr., Mrs., and Ms. honorific titles. They can reveal both marital status and an employee’s gender.
  • Finally, decide whether you should make pronoun usage voluntary or mandatory – once you fully understand both the benefits and the costs associated with the implementation of a Preferred Gender Pronouns effort. Realize that the first major program decision you must make is whether to require the pronoun practice. In this area, you have five basic strategic program options to select. However, no matter which option you select, be sure and thoroughly research and then quantify both the benefits and costs of each option. Those five options include:
  1. First, you can discourage/prohibit the use of all pronouns and gender identification titles like Mr., Mrs., and Ms.
  2. Next, you can allow the use of only completely gender-neutral pronouns like “they,” “them,” “everyone,” “this person,” “Hir,” or “Ze.”
  3. Third, you can make pronouns use strictly voluntary practice. However, if it becomes a common employee practice, the peer pressure to participate will be strong. 
  4. Next, you can support pronoun usage only among your employees who specifically request their use (in California, the law requires giving employees this option).
  5. Finally, you can require all employees to use their preferred pronouns in all of their communications. 

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If you can only do one thing – as you are planning your larger PGP effort. Conduct an anonymous survey of your employees to identify their current gender-related issues. Next, also institute a website or hotline where employees can call to report LBGQ and transgender issues anonymously. Then apply the information that you gather from both of these practices to the design of your final Preferred Gender Pronoun program.

Final Thoughts

When you consider implementing a preferred gender pronoun effort, realize that the first major error most make is rushing into it without sufficient research on both its best practices and problems. So do your benchmarking and research. I wouldn’t wait too long to get started. I predict that the pressure from employees, potential applicants, and stakeholders “to do something” in this area will only increase over the next 18 months.

Why limit the revealing of employee personal information to gender?

Please note that nothing in this article suggests that individuals shouldn’t be free in private life to use whatever descriptive pronouns they would like. However, business communications are different from private communications. And because every employee has multiple ways in which they can be described biologically. Including their race, age, weight and sexual orientation? And there are other important nonbiological descriptors like religion, marital status and income? And even though gender status is currently extremely important to many employees. I wonder out loud what suddenly makes gender so important that every employee should be required/encouraged to list private information that may reveal in their business communications that they are a member of a protected group? Because in all other cases, companies strive to keep that information private

Author’s Note 

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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