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Top 10 Tips for Pronoun Usage in Workplace Email Signature Blocks

Russell Wershil Kazi Hasan


  • Be prepared for people to notice.
  • Be prepared for nothing to change and for no one to notice.
  • Be respectful of coworkers’ use of their preferred pronouns.
Top 10 Tips for Pronoun Usage in Workplace Email Signature Blocks
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This top 10 list contains two sections: (1) the top five tips for listing your pronouns in your work email signature block and (2) the top five tips for being respectful of coworkers who list their pronouns in their work email signature block.

As a preliminary point of clarification, just so that I am clear about what I mean by listing your pronouns in your work email signature block, listing your pronouns in your work email signature block typically looks like this:

John Doe (they/them), Partner, The Law Firm of Doe & Doe,
[email protected], (555) 123-5555, 123 Oak Street, Elm City, NY

In other words, the work email signature block includes the person’s name and then the person’s preferred pronouns in parentheses. The pronouns are listed within a pair of parentheses on the right side of the name within the signature block. It would typically be followed by the rest of the work email signature block—that is, the person’s title; the firm name; and the person’s contact info, including email address, phone number, and street address. In this example, the person’s name is John Doe and the person’s pronouns are they/them.

Top Five Tips for Listing Your Preferred Pronouns

The following are the top five tips for listing your preferred pronouns in your email signature block at work.

Tip No. 1: Be Prepared for People to Notice

When you place your preferred pronouns in your work email signature block, expect everyone in the office to see it, and expect your clients and your vendors to see it. In this day and age, using pronouns can have many different meanings and does not necessarily mean that you are LGBTQ—but it might suggest that you are or that you are an ally of the LGBTQ community, and people might interpret it to mean those things. If you put it out there, people will see it, and you have no direct control over how people will interpret it. You know to whom you have sent emails, but you never know to whom others have forwarded your emails without your knowledge, so just assume that everyone has seen it.

However, if you are LGBTQ, do not rely on your work email signature block alone to inform people of what pronouns you want them to use to refer to you. Some people might not read your emails carefully even after you have sent emails to them, and the signature block is the section of an email that readers are least likely to look at carefully. If you need everyone at work to know what your pronouns are, or if your colleagues are using the wrong pronouns for you, you might need to talk to your supervisor or to your firm’s human resources (HR) personnel about finding the best solution so that you can feel comfortable that your gender identity will be respected at work.

Tip No. 2: Be Prepared for People to Ask Questions

Don’t get frustrated if you find yourself assuming the role of educator. Try to be respectful of others’ lack of knowledge, and enjoy the opportunity to help educate others. While queer people tend to be sensitive to queer issues, many cis, straight, and cishet people are still ignorant of queer culture; so, if you have the energy to take on this role at work, you can provide value to the cause of queer equality and queer visibility by taking on the role of an informal champion for queer acceptance at work. Embracing your role as an educator of others at work can be a large part of this task.

However, such a role requires a lot of work and entails a lot of stress; and if you do not feel like you have the energy to take on this additional unpaid role at work, do not feel like you are obligated to do so. You are under no moral or ethical obligation to assume such added responsibility unless you want to and feel that you are able to. If people ask you questions and you don’t want to answer, politely refer them to internet sources from which they can educate themselves. Many such internet sources of information exist and are easy to find. If you feel that people are asking you so many questions that you feel they are accidentally being rude to you, then politely tell them that you hold no formal role as an educator on queer issues and that it is not appropriate for them to treat you as if you do hold such a role.

Tip No. 3: Be Prepared for Others at Work to Offer Support or to Ask You for Support

Often, one person or a small handful of people coming out and being the first openly queer people at their workplace can break the ice, after which others feel more accepted and more comfortable and more likely to come out themselves. If you are out at work, be prepared for your coworkers who are thinking about coming out at work to ask you for advice or to ask you what your experiences of being out as queer or trans at work have been like. You might pave a path that others will be able to follow in ways that will make them feel happier and more affirmed at work.

Also, many non-queer people view themselves as allies, so they may offer to support you at work as allies. The polite response is to tell them that you accept and appreciate their support and that you are grateful and thankful for their support.

While you may not enjoy being singled out or being treated differently and you may want to be treated just like everyone else, if someone singles you out to tell you that they support you or to ask you to support them, you should try to view that in the best possible light. Your ally probably means well and has good intentions.

If they make you uncomfortable by telling you that they support you or by asking you to support them, and you were not seeking anything other than for people to use the correct pronouns for you, simply politely inform them of how you feel, and tell them that they can best support you by using your pronouns and that you can best support them in the same way. No queer person at work should ever feel like they are being forced to be more visible than they want to be (likewise, they should also never feel like they are being forced to be less visible than they want to be).

Tip No. 4: Be Prepared to Encounter Hostility

In today’s hyperpartisan political environment, some people view the use of preferred pronouns as a political statement related to queer equality—and some people are vehemently opposed to queer equality. If you encounter hostility from coworkers, be polite, never get angry, and don’t lose your cool—but do make sure that every interaction is documented and reported appropriately to your HR department, and let your employer decide whether steps need to be taken and, if so, what steps need to be taken. Gender discrimination at work is no joke and can potentially lead to liability, so you never want to have a problem because you used your pronouns at work and then let someone cause trouble for you without taking the steps laid out in your employer’s HR policies and manuals.

Tip No. 5: Be Prepared for Nothing to Change and for No One to Notice

That is what happened to me when I added my pronouns to my work email signature block: No one commented and no one noticed.

This actually can be an implied sign of respect: It means that your coworkers and supervisors don’t want you to feel any different from anyone else; they want you to feel like you are equal to every other member of the team instead of feeling like you are being singled out for special treatment. If people don’t say anything, it might mean that they take it for granted that using pronouns is perfectly normal, in which case there is nothing noteworthy about it that deserves or needs comment.

Of course, if people fail to notice and default to the wrong pronouns for you instead of using your preferred pronouns, then you might need to make an extra effort to draw attention to your pronouns at work.

Top Five Tips for Being Respectful of Colleagues Who List Their Preferred Pronouns

The following are the top five tips for being respectful of colleagues who list their preferred pronouns in their email signature block at work.

Tip No. 1: Be Respectful of Coworkers’ Use of Their Preferred Pronouns

If one of your coworkers puts you on notice of their preferred pronouns by listing their pronouns in their work email signature block, then it is your responsibility to remember those pronouns and to use those pronouns when referring to that person—each and every time. It is not acceptable to ignore preferred pronouns. Making the effort to learn your colleague’s correct pronouns shows your respect for them and shows them that you value and appreciate them, which fosters a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

Tip No. 2: Be Respectful of Coworkers Who Choose Not to List Their Pronouns

The decision to list your preferred pronouns in your work email signature block is a personal decision, and you should not criticize your coworkers if they choose not to do so. A person’s choice not to list their pronouns in their email signature block does not necessarily mean that they do not have preferred pronouns, and you should never assume or infer that it does mean that. It also does not necessarily imply any particular political or social views about the use of pronouns, and you should also not make that assumption or draw that inference. There can be many different reasons why someone might choose not to use pronouns at work, and you should respect and never criticize your coworkers’ decisions.

Tip No. 3: If You Have a Question About a Coworker’s Pronouns, Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

But be polite when you ask, and be sure to honor and respect the answers that you are given. Don’t make the person feel singled out; instead, try to project that you are sincerely curious and are looking to obtain information to help you affirm and support your colleagues and create a friendly working environment. Also, it is best to ask such questions in private so that you do not attract attention to your coworker from your other peers; unwanted attention can make people feel uncomfortable, and that is precisely what you should try to avoid doing.

Tip No. 4: If a Coworker Is Very Sensitive to Being Misgendered, Then Make an Extra Effort to Make Sure That You Always Use the Correct Pronouns for That Person

Different people have different levels of sensitivity to others using the correct pronouns for them, and you need to be sensitive to that fact. If a person makes clear to you that they care very much about what pronouns are used to refer to that person, or if they inform you that using the wrong pronouns for them might trigger them, respect that. The person will appreciate it; your efforts will contribute to a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion at work; and you will help build morale for your entire workplace while also showing your coworker that you respect that person.

On the other hand, some people are more willing to forgive you if you accidentally use the wrong pronouns for them. However, if you make accidental mistakes repeatedly, you should make an extra effort to get it right every time—even if the other person forgives you each time you make a mistake.

Tip No. 5: If You Believe That You Lack the Knowledge Necessary to Be Able to Correctly Use the Preferred Pronouns of One of Your Coworkers, the Internet Is a Great Resource for Finding Knowledge, Tools, and Tips

It doesn’t hurt to be familiar with the most popular sets of pronouns in use so that you can accustom yourself to how to use them. Common pronouns include he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, he/they, she/they, any/all, and xe/xem. In addition, there are hundreds of different custom pronouns in use, such as fae/faer/faers and ae/aer/aers. More new pronouns are put into usage every day, so you should never think that you can learn them all; instead, view pronoun usage as a never-ending voyage of learning and discovery, which can lead to a rewarding experience of diversity and inclusion.

Some sets of pronouns come with their own custom sets of rules; for example, if someone uses any/all pronouns, that means that you can use any pronouns to refer to them; it doesn’t mean that you must specifically use the word any when you refer to them. As another example, if someone uses she/they, then you can use she/her or they/them to refer to that person.

If one of your coworkers uses custom pronouns and you want to learn the rules, look them up or ask the coworker politely if they would be willing to explain them to you. Also, be aware that some people have a set of acceptable pronouns and then a subset within that set of preferred pronouns. For example, I use he/they but I prefer they/them.

I have also met people who have different groups of friends and who prefer to use one set of pronouns among one group and different pronouns with the other group, and I have heard of people who prefer one set of pronouns at work and a different set of pronouns among friends and loved ones.

The golden rules of pronoun usage, and of queer identity in general, are never assume; always presume your own ignorance unless you are told something that gives you knowledge; always ask if you don’t know—but never criticize; and never question in a critical way. If someone asks me, “If you prefer they/them, why do you use he/him?” I will not answer that question because I do not regard “Why?” as a valid question in the context of pronoun usage.