How to support nonbinary and trans colleagues at work, and the email template to use if you accidentally misgender them
This article by Tat Bellamy Walker originally appeared in Business Insider.
As companies around the world opt for more diversity in their workforce, managers and employees alike might be faced with unexpected situations.
One of these is misgendering a coworker.
This means using the wrong pronouns to refer to a person's gender, and it has become more prevalent as trans and nonbinary workers feel more comfortable coming out in the office.
There are at least a million transgender people in the US. A transgender person has a gender that differs from their sex assigned at birth, while a nonbinary person has a gender that isn't exclusively male or female. Studies show that trans and nonbinary colleagues are more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace. This includes being denied a promotion, and even being fired because of their identity, reports a US Transgender Survey from 2015, which is the most recent data available.
For example, if someone comes out as nonbinary and uses "they" and "them" pronouns, it is incorrect to use the pronouns "she" or "he." Using the wrong pronouns can cause stress and trigger feelings of trans-related stigma, according to research in the Journal for Self and Identity.
However, there are ways that workers can help and support a colleague's gender transition.
Kay Martinez is associate director of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at MGH Institute of Health Professions. Martinez, who uses "they" and "them" pronouns, is also a workplace inclusivity consultant who has facilitated workshops on gender, race, and sexuality at Stanford and Yale.
Martinez told Business Insider that if you use the wrong pronouns when addressing a trans or nonbinary coworker, sending a simple email can be a first step toward correcting misgendering.
"Sending an email immediately is a great first step," Martinez said. "Let them read the email and respond to you as they would like to."
Misgendering can creep in at the most awkward moments, including during the onboarding process, a video conferencing call, or when being introduced to new coworkers. The first step is acknowledging that mistakes happen.
"No one is perfect, and we are not striving for perfection," Martinez said.
Here's a script Martinez recommends you use to avoid misgendering a colleague, the exact email you should send if you do, and the dos and don'ts of correcting this mistake at work.
Prevention: A script you can use in a meeting or video call
Creating a plan to prevent misgendering is important because it establishes early on that your company is inclusive and welcoming to people of all genders, Martinez said. Taking the first step and stating your own pronouns helps you set an example for others in the group so they don't assume pronouns based on how a person looks.
You can start with a simple statement: "Hi, my name is Kay and I use they/them/theirs pronouns."
For example, when Martinez is leading a meeting, they say: "For introductions, if folks could please say their names, roles, and share their pronouns if they would like to."
Whether in person or in a virtual setting, introducing yourself to a group with your name and pronouns can help normalize the practice. According to Martinez, while sharing pronouns is encouraged, it shouldn't be mandatory.
"Everyone should have the autonomy to share if they would like to," Martinez said. "You can also share your name and pronouns in your display so it shows up when you enter virtual meeting spaces."
Here's the exact email template you can use
Even with introductions out of the way, there's a chance a coworker might still make an error. If that happens, Martinez encourages coworkers to correct themselves and then apologize.
Martinez recommends colleagues send an email right away, using the subject line: "My apologies, meeting follow-up" or "Sorry about our last meeting." Using the words "sorry" in the title shows that you want to be held accountable for your actions. They said this can bring a sense of relief to the person who was misgendered.
The email should then read as follows:
Dear (your colleague's name),
I wanted to apologize for misgendering you in today's meeting. I'm sorry I did that and I realized it later. I recognize that this is not acceptable and impacts you, and I have identified ways I can work on this myself so that this will not occur again. Is there anything I can do to further support you?
I have sent an email to the other colleagues who were in the meeting today to let them know I realized I misgendered you today, I have apologized to you, that this was not acceptable, and that we as colleagues commit to not having this happen. Again, I am sorry this happened and I want to thank you for the excellent contributions you make to our team and organization.
DON'T: "My brother, sister, sibling, friend, or partner is trans"
Not only is it unprofessional to disclose a family member, friend or partner's gender without their consent, but it also does not resolve the misgendering, Martinez said. Most people say this because they fear others will accuse them of being transphobic.
"Doing this deflects from addressing what occurred and deflects from the person taking accountability," Martinez said. "When you misgender someone, the focus needs to be on the person you misgendered."
However, if you mess up on a pronoun, it's normal for your own feelings to come up. You may feel angry or disappointed with yourself.
"It is important to make some time to address these feelings but the person you misgendered does not need to be a part of this process," Martinez said.
DON'T: Ignore it
If you misgender your coworker, don't make it worse by not acknowledging the mistake. According to Martinez, most people do not want to address the issue because it makes them feel uncomfortable.
"Most of us do not seek out uncomfortable conversations or spaces — we have an inherent fight or flight mechanism to protect us everywhere, including our workplaces," they said. "If a person is misgendered and it is not addressed, it could continue and escalate to fostering a toxic workplace."
DO: Reach out to your other coworkers
If this misgendering is done publicly, like in a meeting, you must reach out to your colleagues separately. It is important to acknowledge the mistake.
"Let them know you know you misgendered a colleague, that it is not acceptable, and that everyone needs to make sure they're not misgendering your colleague, so they don't think you set a precedent," they said.
DO: Send this email to your colleague ASAP
As for the timing of this message, Martinez advises that this email should be sent as soon as possible. Allowing misgendering to linger not only creates an unsafe workplace but exposes the company to possible discrimination suits on the basis of gender identity.
"We're all learning," Martinez said. We all deserve to feel safe at work, and creating inclusive workplaces requires learning, honesty, and accountability."