How to Work with an Employee or Lead Someone Who Is Gender Fluid

Workplace Gender Fluid Non-Binary Guide Employee Leader

In 2017, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added the term “gender-fluid” to its lexicon. In order to consider adding a new word, the OED editors must deem the term a significant and notable development in the history of the English language. The term “gender-fluid” has been in use for many years within the LGBTQ community and its addition to the OED reinforces its validity to a larger audience.

gender-fluid (adj.): denoting or relating to a person who does not identify themselves as having a fixed gender.

The term itself, describing someone who doesn’t necessarily identify as male or female or who might feel rather female one day and rather male the next, signals a growing recognition and acceptance of people who choose to identify outside the traditional gender binary. This impacts HR leaders and workplaces in a number of ways, specifically when considered protected classes of people that fall under EEOC guidelines.

Creating a Gender Fluid Inclusive Team and Workplace

In a 2017 Accelerating Acceptance report, LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD revealed that 20% of respondents ages 18-34 identify as LGBTQ, a notable increase from Gen X and baby boomer generations. Among millennials, 12% identify as either transgender or gender-nonconforming, twice the number of Gen Xers who do. Given these numbers, it’s more important than ever that companies ensure an inclusive environment that is respectful of all gender identities.

In the Workology podcast episode, “Inclusion and the Use of Gender-Neutral Pronouns in the Workplace” with HR professional Christine Assaf, we discussed what to do when someone asks to be referred to as gender neutral (or gender-fluid, or non-binary). Christine says that when an employee asks to be referred to as gender-fluid, we should honor their request. The question is more about how we implement the change in the office. She suggests working with the individual to understand how they want the announcement to happen and if they would like HR involved and in what ways. The employee making the request should really drive the process. HR is there to support them.

The key is being prepared to handle requests like this. Christine suggests including gender-neutral pronoun training as part of new manager and annual training. Management should understand that these type of requests will happen, not just by employees, but also with candidates who are part of the hiring process. It’s important to prepare these managers for scenarios and appropriate and acceptable responses. Training is going to be your best resource to help managers and team members become more comfortable having these conversations and working with someone who is gender-fluid.

Understanding Non-Binary People, A Workplace Guide

The National Center for Transgender Equality has an online guide to Understanding Non-Binary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive. It includes the following information that could be adapted to a workplace guide and HR training:

You don’t have to understand what it means for someone to be non-binary to respect them. Some people haven’t heard a lot about non-binary genders or have trouble understanding them and that’s okay. But identities that some people don’t understand still deserve respect.

Use the name a person asks you to use. This is one of the most critical aspects of being respectful of a non-binary person, as the name you may have been using may not reflect their gender identity. Don’t ask someone what their old name was.

Try not to make any assumptions about people’s gender. You can’t tell if someone is non-binary simply by looking at them, just like how you can’t tell if someone is transgender just by how they look.

If you’re not sure what pronouns someone uses, ask. Different non-binary people may use different pronouns. Many non-binary people use “they” while others use “he” or “she,” and still others use other pronouns. Asking whether someone should be referred to as “he,” “she,” “they,” or another pronoun may feel awkward at first, but is one of the simplest and most important ways to show respect for someone’s identity.

Additionally, as HR leaders, we can steer the company towards being the example for how our workplace responds to working with all types of people in an inclusive environment. This includes LGBTQ employees, as well as people of color, veterans, and any other protected class. Making inclusivity part of your company culture can be part of setting the example right out of the gate.

Here’s an excellent example of how a company reframed its EEOC statement on job descriptions. Every job posting for dating app company Bumble includes the following:

We strongly encourage people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and non-binary people, veterans, parents, and individuals with disabilities to apply. Bumble is an equal opportunity employer and welcomes everyone to our team. If you need reasonable accommodation at any point in the application or interview process, please let us know.

In your application, please feel free to note which pronouns you use (For example – she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/theirs, etc).

HR must take the lead in creating an environment in which all persons feel comfortable. This includes training, but also company policies like anti-discrimination and having a no-tolerance rule or conflict mediation step prepared. If you’re considering offering educational resources and training, here are some excellent resources on gender pronouns and non-binary inclusion.

Suggested Employer Resources

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell (@jmillermerrell) is a workplace change agent, author and consultant focused on human resources and talent acquisition living in Austin, TX. Recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer and is a global speaker. She’s the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource and host of the Workology Podcast.

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