Communicating a Pronoun Change

I had an interesting experience recently and as it was new to me, perhaps you too can benefit from this experience.

The meeting…

Myself, my direct report, a representative from human resources and an individual contributor reporting to said manager. Frankly, I was concerned that there was either an egregious performance issue or HR violation I was going to find out about. As the headline to this article states, it was about an individual working for me who wanted to announce a change in their pronouns. 

I wanted to share how I went about communicating it to the organization. It is tempting to venture into the current politics of this situation especially if one has strongly held beliefs. My take is that as a manager my focus is on results and the people who deliver those results. This employee made a request of me and it was easily within my power to support them. So, I tried to help.

The request…

One more facet of this request: the employee requested that their manager send out an email to the team announcing the change. I don’t know if there is a defined standard, but I strongly encouraged the individual to send their own note out. They were insistent on it coming from us (management) and as I was reading their manager’s body language, I could tell they weren’t comfortable writing the email either. So, I took it. It was a task that (I thought) wouldn’t take me long and was a good opportunity to ensure I set the bar for the cultural conventions in my organization. 

Oy, writing this email well took me a while. I spent time looking for examples and learned that most were about students introducing their pronouns and chosen names to their professors. This is a good sign for us thinking we need not venture into this subject that questions around pronoun usage are not going anywhere and we’d better figure out how to support our teams. I want to restate that to many typical individuals the importance of this may not be easy to grok. Leaders must set aside our comfort and focus on putting together a team of people who feel safe to tell us what they need to perform at their best.  

The email…

Hey team,

I wanted to send out a note about a pronoun change for one of our team members: [Name]. [New Pronoun] requests we refer to them with the [New pronoun likely one of: (she/her|he/him|they/them)] pronouns. 

Please do your best to help us embody our company value – [add your value here] and support our team cohesion as we give all our team members the respect to refer to them with their name pronounced accurately and use the pronouns they prefer.

Lastly, I wanted to suggest that we more broadly share this link: (Link to an Airtable including columns for: name, nick name, pronunciation guide for name, pronouns, gender, time zone, country, start date, manager, specialty, etc.)

You may not have seen it before, but we try to track some basic demographic information to help us better understand our team and their backgrounds. In it you can add your pronoun preference and a helpful pronunciation guide for your name.

Note: These fields are designed to be user generated. If you don’t see appropriate values to reflect your identity, please DM me (@Nathan Feger ) or your manager (if you don’t already have edit access) and we will get this sorted out tout suite1.

Take care,

Nathan A Feger

The takeaway…

Big shout out to my son who was helpful with some references to sites that helped me understand pronouns and neo-pronouns. As well, he is someone who helped me develop greater empathy for these individuals’ experience. 

You will notice in this email that there is a reference to not only this pronoun change, but a systemic approach to helping craft a culture where individuals are addressed with respect. My company had more than 10 time zones to take into account across many more cultures. What unlocked this email to me was that this individual was just one among many to whom I am not addressing properly when I misspeak their name, or expect a response from them at 3am. 

Good luck, and if you use this email please holler at me @nafeger on twitter to tell me if it was helpful or if you think it could be made better.

1 This turned up in a good discussion with some of my peers and it bears repeating here. Some solid feedback is that this phrase will not translate well to the many cultures mentioned in this article. Further, it could be described as ‘not professional’. All of which is true. And it would be totally reasonable to remove and replace with a more generic vernacular of: right away. Yet, this kind of flourish is part and parcel of my style, and a quick search or even context clues reveal it’s meaning. ‘Professional’ doesn’t have to be boring, stale, or lacking the personal. It is all personal, this more than most. So, I’ll leave you with two thoughts: 1. Communicating well takes time and has consequences. 2. It doesn’t have to suck at work, so be yourself as much as you can. Which is really the lesson this individual is giving us all the opportunity to learn.