I saw an article on Entrepreneur last week advising workforce managers to show sensitivity in the use of pronouns. This is a relatively new area of sensitivity. It was not discussed in most places until the last five years. Are there other areas of needed sensitivity that middle-aged and older managers may not have considered?
On the pronoun issue, Entrepreneur contributor Chuck H. Shelton notes the connection to larger issues of diversity and inclusion. I am reminded that, along with race and ethnicity, inclusion means not just gender identification, but including people with different levels of physical capacity (i.e., not excluding people with disabilities) and including people who think differently (i.e., not excluding people with autism and other neuro-diversities).
Shelton also connects the gender identification issue to privacy concerns. He makes the point that not everyone is comfortable sharing their pronouns publicly. “Normalizing a conversation is different than being intrusive and prying. Be mindful of the energy and the individual and operate with care and compassion,” he writes.
That reminds me that, along with questions related to marriage, children, sexual orientation, and other personal issues, gender identification should not be asked during job interviews. That means no asking during a job application process, or at the interview itself, for the applicant to share their pronouns. The better approach is to give the applicant “the opportunity” to share their pronouns—only if they like. The job application, or other form, could emphasize that it’s strictly voluntary.
No Laughing Matter
An older person may have difficulty taking gender identification, and especially gender transition, seriously and treating it with respect. I remember an older man I know laughing 20 years ago about a few men in his large organization who were transitioning. He joked at what unattractive women these would be once the transition was complete. For years, a go-to comedy routine—guaranteed laughs—was the man on a sitcom or in a movie dressed in women’s clothing. It’s hard for some older people to get past that image, and understand that transitioning is something much more involved and serious than a man donning a dress. What is the right approach to take with an employee, who came of age in a very different time, who openly finds another employee’s gender transition funny, and talks about it in comedic terms? Some would say you should immediately terminate them. I would take the approach of education first. “Tom, actually, what Cindy is doing is serious business, and challenging. It’s no joking matter. Do you understand? This is something she is doing to align with her gender identity. She’s not doing it for kicks. Laughing and treating it as a joke is hurtful and disrespectful. If I hear or see you doing it again, your job will be terminated.”
I then would document the conversation, have Tom sign that he was warned, and then submit the document to Human Resources, so if the need arises, Tom could be terminated with no question that he was adequately educated and warned. What would you advise a manager to do in this situation?
Leading by Example
Shelton advising “leading by example.” If a manager treats people with respect at all times, including when they express their gender identity and preferred pronouns, it is likely their team will do the same. Beyond gender identification, the manager who takes a sensitive approach when communicating with people different from themselves also will set the stage for sensitive behavior from their employees. That means showing employees that they hire people of all different races and perspectives.
It also means the manager asks questions when a culture is different from their own. “How does that work for you?” they might ask a new employee about a work event that will require travel on a Saturday or Sunday, when some people have religious observations or family obligations/traditions. If the employee gives a valid reason why it doesn’t work, the manager then would try to find a solution. “How about you arrive at the conference on Monday afternoon, and then stay a half-day later than Suzy, who told me she wanted to fly home late on Tuesday. Perhaps you could be the one who stays until Wednesday afternoon. Would that work?”
No More “Just Let It Go”
There are so many areas of life that require sensitivity, especially these days. People today are more attuned to the need to be treated with respect. Growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, we were taught to let almost everything go. It doesn’t work that way anymore. Some of your older employees (and even some of the younger ones) may need to be taught areas of needed sensitivity that they never would have thought of on their own.
What does having an inclusive culture mean to you? What are some of the things your organization does to give employees and managers the education they need to be sensitive in a wide variety of situations?