Employment Advice

Pronouns in the workplace

Getting names and pronouns exactly right is increasingly important, should you encourage staff to add pronouns to their email signatures?

04 Jun 2022

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Esther Marshall

Esther Marshall

“What’s in a name?” asks Shakespeare’s Juliet, declaring that a rose would smell just as sweet whatever we call it. But that argument is unlikely to hold water in today’s working environment.  Getting names and pronouns exactly right is increasingly important.

Should you encourage staff to add pronouns to their email signatures?  Do you understand all the different expressions of gender identity? It may not simply be a choice of he/him, she/her, they/them.

Recently it was revealed that Soho House, the private members’ club for those in the arts, politics and the media, offered a choice of 41 pronouns for its members to choose from, ranging from the mainstream to the obscure, including eir, ners, pers, thon and xyr.   The topic even has its own special day: International Pronouns Day is the third Wednesday in October.

While the practice of adding pronouns to emails seems to have started in academic circles it has now spread widely across the corporate world.  Some employees may actively wish to give their pronouns, and that is their choice, but staff are also being asked to cite their preference and many report this is not just on emails, but also within meetings and online profiles, such as LinkedIn.

While enforcing a company-wide policy may be presented as a move towards greater openness and inclusivity, some would argue this can act to exclude those with different views and potentially breach equality legislation itself.  Mandating declared pronouns or creating situations where it’s difficult to avoid, could be coercive.

The extent to which the topic has become contentious is reflected in the guide developed by campaign group Sex Matters on the use of gender pronouns in the work environment. The group was launched by Maya Forstater, who won a landmark appeal tribunal over gender self-identification.

She had made a claim for discrimination after being sacked for saying that trans women are male or ‘honorary female’, arguing that sex is immutable and should not be conflated with gender identity.   On appeal, the judge ruled that her comments were protected as a ‘philosophical belief’ within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010, saying that the only types of beliefs excluded from protection were extreme ones “akin to Nazism or totalitarianism”.

The ruling said that Forstater’s “gender-critical beliefs, which were widely shared, and which did not seek to destroy the rights of trans persons, clearly did not fall into that category”.

So, this landmark case confirmed that both those holding a gender identity belief and those holding a gender critical belief are protected under the law.

But whether conduct arising from such belief may be discriminatory to trans-people is a different question, relying on the facts of each case.  Certainly, someone with gender critical beliefs cannot indiscriminately address trans persons in derogatory terms or ignore preferred forms of address, as this is likely to constitute harassment or discrimination.

This is the challenge facing Dr Mackereth, a declared Christian, who is appealing against a tribunal decision which found that he was not discriminated against on the grounds of religion or belief when he was dismissed for refusing to address transgender patients by their chosen pronoun.

Dr Mackereth is relying on a theological argument and claims that his belief is shared by the majority of Christians.  An important difference between the Forstater and Mackereth cases is that the doctor argues that his beliefs entitled him to misgender transgender individuals, where Ms Forstater expressed her beliefs but used preferred pronouns.

Mullis & Peake LLP Solicitors do not accept any responsibility for the content and links to external websites.

M&P Commentary

Esther Marshall, solicitors in employment law, said:

“These cases demonstrate just some of the difficulties faced by employers in looking to create a culture that is inclusive and emphasises the importance of appropriate policies and keeping up to date with this fast-moving area of employment law.  Many employers’ equality and diversity policies have not been updated to cover these issues. We can assist with a full review of policies and procedures, as well as providing expert assistance in the unfortunate event of an Employment Tribunal Claim.”

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