Cultural acceptance is far greater today than ever before, but despite an era of openness, unintentional bias can still occur. A prime example involves transgender identity in the workplace. Regardless of how well-meaning we are, it’s easy to inadvertently offend or upset a transgender person—especially when it comes to using gender pronouns.
Gender Identity as a Civil Right
“Transgender” is a blanket term that refers to anybody whose gender identity, expression or behavior differs from what is typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Non-binary, gender-fluid and genderqueer individuals all fall under the term, but problems arise because not all non-binary people identify themselves as transgender. Some favor gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them/theirs or ze/hir/sie over more traditional ones like he/him/his or she/her/hers.
This can cause discomfort in the workplace, or worse, outright discrimination, especially from those who consider transgender people who insist on the use of non-traditional pronouns as attention-seekers or trend-followers. These same individuals are usually cognizant about avoiding negative remarks about race or religion, and yet, perceive the issue of transgender differently. What they fail to understand is that preferred pronouns are essential to the transgendered person’s very identity in exactly the same way as race and religion.
This can pose serious legal issues for employers. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Title VII of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission specifically bans discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Therefore, it is the civil right of transgendered people to be called by their preferred pronouns. Prohibited acts include “intentionally and persistently failing to use the name and gender pronoun that correspond to the gender identity with which the employee identifies, and which the employee has communicated to management and employees.” Detailed information can be found in the EEOC’s publication, What You Should Know About EEOC and Enforcement Protections for LGBT Workers. There has been some argument about whether or not Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity; the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule definitively on the issue in an upcoming court case.
Regardless, Title VII stands as law currently. Even if the ruling is overturned, it’s in the employer’s best interest to avoid discrimination in today’s more enlightened society. Doing so involves instituting a couple of key steps: from an operational perspective, human resource information systems, forms, and portals should undergo a thorough audit and be revised so they are built on non-binary gender identity platforms; and culturally speaking, employers should promote inclusivity in the workplace and foster a better understanding about gender identity through training for both management and employees.