“Please change my name from Mark to Mary on all my HR documents and work email.”
That was how I became introduced to the world of sex and pronoun changes at work. Nearly 1.4 million Americans have stood in front of a public restroom and been uncomfortable about which door to enter because they were in the process of a sex change. The uncomfortable feeling of the restroom door extends into the workplace when an employee changes sex and now uses a different pronoun.
I feel confident, or maybe just hopeful, that a pronoun change will soon be nearly as commonplace as a name change.
To make that happen, companies should stop being fearful about these situations, since that fear ultimately creates a needlessly uncomfortable situation for their employees.
There is no guidebook to help us ascertain the best way to navigate a sex/pronoun change. For now, we’re left to trial and error. Sadly, I have more error stories than I care to share. Still, even by doing things poorly, we have great opportunity to learn. Here are my thoughts on ways we can do better.
First, no official request for a pronoun change should be made until the actual person making a sex change has requested it. Does that sound like the craziest thing I’ve ever written? Okay, probably not, but it’s right up there. What I’m saying here is: Don’t assume or act on a tip from a well-meaning friend or on a rumor. I know you would never do this, but sadly, it does happen.
Next, have a plan before you need one. If you have not yet had this type of situation arise in your organization, it likely will. Don’t get caught off guard. Have an idea of how you will help the employee and your organization smoothly adjust during the process.
Make sure you are entirely clear on what the employee wants. Transitions occur over time and in many stages. An employee who shares with you that they have begun the process does not constitute a green light to make a formal staff announcement and update all their documents. Yep, that’s happened in real life too. Discuss the process together.
Not everyone will understand. You must accept and be prepared to deal with this.
Have a plan to help educate employees and provide support when the time is right.
Pro-actively think about logistics. Bathrooms are a top concern for most involved and must be explicitly addressed for the comfort of everyone. Those of you moving into new buildings, my advice is this: Single room, gender-neutral bathrooms are the way to go. If a move is not in your immediate future, a small remodel might be in order. Regardless, make sure your employee knows you are committed to a safe and comfortable resolution.
Above all, respect and care will guide your staff gently through this and any other transitions your organization embraces.