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02. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Series: Identity in the Workplace

We are going to drop you into a story that takes place at a fictious SMB. While the main goal of this series is to provide ideas around inclusion and identity through the perspective of our fictional characters, we will touch on a variety of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) themes.

Published: May 25, 2021

Feeling seen.

Did you know that in 2019, Merriam-Webster added the singular use of the pronoun “they” to its dictionary to acknowledge the increased adoption of the word by the non-binary community? And they named they word of the year after internet searches for the term rose by 313% from the previous year., What’s Your Pronoun? Strategies for Inclusion in the Workplace, May 2020

Making sure your employees can come to work as their true selves might begin with simply recognizing a person’s pronouns. You just need to take that first step.

Identity in the Workplace

TriNet’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion series is designed to provide ideas around having a diverse workforce. You will see avenues the characters can take in the conversation below. These are just a few potential paths we believe to be helpful and are not meant to be considered as the only possible outcomes. Feel free to navigate to a different path at the bottom of the page.

The main things you need to know are:

  • This fictional SMB is not very far into its corporate DE&I journey

  • The story includes real-life content

  • The story takes place during the pandemic, so employees are working from home and meetings are held virtually

  • We’ve intentionally made certain story points vague, so be aware of how you fill in the gaps with what could be inherent biases. Try to see if you can catch yourself as you read!

Pronouns Matter

Alex and Michelle are friends and work colleagues. Alex is more senior and was assigned as an official mentor to Michelle. Andi is another colleague who also works closely with Michelle and Alex. All three report to Toni.

The pandemic has introduced a new method of interacting with colleagues—virtual meetings and calls. Alex is excited to see some familiar names and faces on this week’s video call. As the team is wrapping up, Alex brings the call to an end.

“Great meeting, team! Thanks again for hopping on a call today! I think we’re making solid progress.”

Andi jumps in, sounding rushed. “Thanks, Alex! Running late for my next call, but let’s talk again soon.”

Andi logs off from the team meeting.

Alex waits a moment for the rest of the team to disconnect and asks, “Michelle, are you still on?”

Michelle smiles, glad for the chance to chat with her friend and mentor for a few minutes. Working remote she misses going to work and interacting with her colleagues. “Yes, I’m here. How are you, Alex?”

“I am great!” says Alex. “And how is Andi holding up?" Michelle asks. “Is she going stir-crazy alone in her apartment?”

Alex pauses, realizing Michelle just called Andi a “she.” Andi recently expressed a preference to be identified by gender-inclusive pronouns. Alex noticed other members of the team making a conscious effort to honor Andi’s request during the call. “Andi? I talked to them last week and they’re doing fine. Lots of Netflix and puzzles. And they’re talking about adopting a dog.”

Michelle shakes her head, confused. “They? Ohhh, I see. I’m guessing you saw the new addition to her company signature? Is the company even comfortable with her adding that?”

“Yes, we received the thumbs-up from Pat.” Alex smiled as he recalled his conversation with Pat, the company’s senior accountant / HR specialist sharing inclusive email signatures were a relatively simple way to demonstrate the company’s commitment to our changing culture. Alex agreed. “Does it make you uncomfortable?”

(Dear Reader, Pat is part of this company’s accounting department and has been given the responsibility of also focusing on HR matters. To learn more about how Pat handled challenging conversations around the importance of having inclusive recruiting hiring practice, read here.)

Michelle exclaims, “Yes! They/them/theirs? That’s not even grammatically correct! What’s next? Using Mx. to address all of our customers? Honestly, it’s not a problem for me, but I feel like it makes our company look like we buy into all of these millennial fads. I mean, what if I slip up and say ‘she’? Is that really so offensive?”

Alex is surprised by Michelle’s response. Alex has always valued Michelle’s usually open-minded opinions. But now, Alex is disappointed.

“I’m sure Andi understands that it might take some time to adjust, but the effort means a lot to them. And this isn’t a millennial fad. It makes a real difference in trans and nonbinary lives if people respect their preferences.”

“To be honest, I’ve been considering adding pronouns to my email line as well. People often get a little confused about my name and it leads to some really awkward beginnings of phone calls and emails. Remember when you first emailed me? You thought I was a woman. I think Andi must feel the same way.”

Michelle nods her head. “Oh my gosh, that’s right! I hadn’t met you yet and just assumed. I really don’t mind calling her—I mean… them?—whatever they are comfortable with.”

Alex makes a mental note to ask Pat for more resources to share with colleagues and clients. How could they appropriately educate co-workers on this topic? How should they handle resistance to this change? What if other employees make unintentional errors when speaking to or about Andi?

“Great! I think it is really just about valuing all of our employees and their identities. I just read an article about why gender identity matters at work. I’ll send you the link. Meanwhile, it might help if you try thinking about it differently. Haven’t we laughed many times about how many people call you up and assume that you speak Spanish fluently, just because of your last name?”

Michelle snorts. “True! I never know what to do when they just start talking to me in Spanish! Well, I am glad we ended up chatting about this because I wasn’t really sure how to feel about it.”

Alex agrees, hoping Michelle is making the connection. “I am here any time you want to chat. You know that. Well, I guess I should let you get back to work. Thanks for talking with me. I miss our lunch conversations!”

Michelle smiles. “I miss you, too! Hang in there, friend.”

Michelle and Alex disconnect.

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