A few weeks after Alex and Michelle had their virtual chat about Andi, Alex heard that Michelle had spoken to a co-worker, Brandon, leaving him with the impression that Michelle was not open to his team member’s gender identity expression. Alex hoped that Michelle would reflect on their conversation and research the topic on her own. Alex hoped Michelle would seek out DE&I resources and training provided by their company.
Alex clicks the icon to videoconference with Michelle. Michelle has been a little distant lately and Alex is worried she might not pick up. After a few rings, he sees Michelle join the call. “Hi, Michelle! I know it’s been really busy, but we haven’t talked much lately. Are you okay? You’ve seemed quiet the last few meetings.”
Michelle takes a big breath and hesitates. She has been expecting this call but isn’t sure she’s ready to talk about it quite yet. “Yeah, I’m okay. Sorry about being quiet. I am glad to hear from you. I’m just so embarrassed. The incident with Brandon and everything that happened after it... I really messed up. I have never had any negative interactions before that. It really forced me to think about our conversation a few weeks ago. I’m upset because I could have handled it so much better and I really didn’t mean to offend Brandon. It all just has me thinking about... well, a lot of different things. I probably needed it, but it’s hard to face the team. I don’t want them to think I’m small-minded or ignorant or hateful, and I can’t help but feel like they do.”
Alex had a feeling that Michelle was uneasy about this. “I don’t think they do. We’ve all worked together long enough to know you’re not a mean person. If anything, I think it has actually encouraged everyone to think a little harder about their own biases and the ways they talk to each other. I know it has definitely made me think about it. We can all learn to do better. I think you need to try to view this as an opportunity to learn and grow. Toni mentioned you have been doing a lot of reading about identity at work. Have you found anything helpful?”
“Yes!” says Michelle. “Toni actually sent me some great articles. I had no idea there was so much information available and I wasn’t sure where to start. Forbes has articles about making the workplace more inclusive. I also thought about asking Andi for help, but I felt weird about putting it back on them,” she says consciously and deliberately. “I am starting to learn that it’s not their job to teach me how to be more aware. So, when Toni sent me a guide to non-binary inclusion at work, I built a reading list from there. I’ve been concentrating on gender identity, but there are so many other aspects to consider—ethnic and racial identity, religious identity, even physical and mental health identities. It’s a lot to take in.”
“Wow!” Alex responded. “It sounds like you’re on your DE&I journey! Maybe you should share what you have learned with the team.”
“Hardly. I don’t even think I’ve scratched the surface when it comes to learning about this. I’m also becoming so self-conscious about what I’m saying and how it might be perceived that I actually worry that I’m coming off as even less educated on the subject. I can’t afford to make another mistake, though, and I don’t want to! I’m trying really hard, Alex.”
“I hear you. I don’t think anyone expects perfection,” Alex replies. “I make mistakes too; we are all finding our way. Maybe if you look at this more as an ongoing practice, instead of an endpoint you want to get to, that will help you. We’re all learning, making mistakes and learning more. I think most people just want to know that you are willing to listen, that you respect that they are trying to be their authentic selves, and that you support and respect their identity; just as you’d want anyone to do for you.”
“You’re right.” She admits. “If I had been willing to listen to Andi—or to Brandon—I wouldn’t be in this position. It just felt so strange to say “they” and “them” at first and I didn’t think I should’ve had to change the way I was speaking and thinking my whole life over something that just didn’t seem that important to me. I hoped I could laugh it off and it would eventually go away, but it was important to Andi. And when it comes down to it, I just wasn’t ready to admit that by laughing this off, I was telling Andi that I don’t value or respect them enough to make the effort.”
Alex is a little surprised by this admission, but excited to see how much she has grown since the first time they talked about pronouns. “I know this is new for you, but I hope you are proud of the work you’re doing. I think you should be. This is a really different conversation from our first one. And like I said, I want everyone to be comfortable being their authentic selves here. I think it’s important for us to realize that we can all do better and we should always strive to be better. I’m glad our team and company are trying to be more inclusive, but we also need to provide support to the colleagues who might not understand how they could be making someone feel excluded in the first place. It’s not enough to only honor Andi’s request to add pronouns to their email signature. We also need to have open conversations about identity across the company.”
“Thanks, Alex. I think that’s something I should discuss with Toni. I want to feel like part of the team again. I also never directly apologized to Andi. Maybe it’s time I reached out to them?”
Alex thinks about Andi’s possible response to Michelle’s apology. Andi is one of the kindest and most forgiving people Alex has ever known but was also upset about how many people had handled their pronoun change. “I think Andi would appreciate that but remember that they may still be a little bit cautious or hurt. I would definitely apologize, but I would be prepared to still give them the space and time that they need as well. And feel free to call me later if you want to talk some more.”
Michelle smiles. “I will. Thanks for everything Alex. Talk soon!”
Share DE&I articles and resources that you find interesting to co-workers. Be mindful to be respectful and remember that not everyone is on a personal journey to expand their DE&I horizon, and those who are may not be in the same place on that journey as you.
Aspects of DE&I can be hard for some people. That is okay.
If you are a DE&I champion, remember to sympathize. Work with leadership to find the right approach that aligns with your organizational goals.
If you are starting your DE&I journey, do some research. Don’t forget to talk to your leadership.
Would you like additional resources on creating an inclusive work environment or other topics discussed in this path?.
📖 Read more about the rights for transgender employees and how to protect them.
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