Pronouns and Misgendering: Answers to Common Questions from Employers

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bostock decision in June 2020, which held that discrimination because of someone’s transgender status is prohibited under the umbrella of sex discrimination, the EEOC issued guidance expanding on Bostock’s practical implications. The EEOC’s guidance highlights one form of harassment that can contribute to creating a hostile work environment based on gender identity — misgendering. Here are answers to four common questions employers have regarding misgendering in the workplace.

(1) What does it mean to misgender someone?  
Transgender and non-binary employees may ask you to refer to them using language that expresses and corresponds with their gender identity — their internal sense of self and gender. Some people choose to go by a name other than the name their parents gave them at birth. And some people use pronouns that correspond with their gender identity rather than the sex they were assigned at birth. These pronouns might be gendered (e.g., she/her/hers and he/him/his) or non-gendered (e.g., singular use of they/them/their; ze/hir/hirs).  

Misgendering means intentionally or unintentionally referring to a person with language that doesn’t align with their gender identity. For example, you just hired an employee whose legal name is Alecia. During the onboarding process, the employee informs you that he is a transgender man and wishes to be called Alex and referred to using the pronouns “he/his/him.” Calling Alex “Alecia” and using the pronouns “she/her/hers” to refer to the employee would misgender him.

(2) When does misgendering rise to the level of a harassment claim?  
Recent EEOC guidance has clarified that misgendering in the workplace can support a hostile work environment claim. But under what circumstances? If an employee makes an honest mistake or is completely unaware of the person’s gender identity, according to the EEOC, this unintentional conduct will not violate Title VII. If intentional and repeated, however, misgendering can support a hostile work environment claim.

Here’s an example: Amy is a transgender woman who works in a donut shop. She informed her supervisors and her coworkers of her gender identity and requested that they call her Amy, rather than her male legal name, and that they refer to her using she/her/hers pronouns. Despite these requests, Amy’s supervisors and coworkers repeatedly and intentionally refer to her using her male name and pronouns, ask her inappropriate and probing questions about her sexual orientation and anatomy, assign her to a back-of-house role so customers won’t interact with her, prohibit her from using the women’s restroom, and subject her to a stricter dress code than cisgender female employees. Customers witness this behavior and begin to intentionally misgender Amy and make offensive comments about Amy’s gender identity. These facts are based on a Pennsylvania district court case. That court determined that — after Bostock — the plaintiff pled sufficient facts to move forward with her hostile work environment claim, based in part on various persons’ acts of intentionally misgendering her. Doe v. Triangle Doughnuts, LLC, 472 F. Supp. 3d 115 (E.D. Pa. 2020). 

(3) What if a customer/client is misgendering an employee? 

The Triangle Doughnuts case highlights an important but often forgotten feature of hostile work environment claims: customers can also contribute to creating a hostile work environment. The old adages “don’t argue with the customer” and “the customer is always right” have no sway under Title VII. Employers have a legal obligation to protect employees from harassment perpetrated by customers. So if customers intentionally misgender or otherwise harass a transgender or non-binary employee, the employer should promptly step in to protect the employee and shut down the harassment. 

There are small steps employers can take to prevent or at least mitigate customer-based harassment. For example, by ensuring that employees and supervisors are using the correct language to refer to the employee, customers and other third parties will be encouraged to use that same language. And other small signals of acceptance go a long way, such as providing the employee with a name tag reflecting the name they go by and perhaps including their preferred pronouns. 

(4) What are some best practices for preventing and addressing misgendering in the workplace? 
There are several ways employers can proactively foster a more gender-inclusive environment and prevent and correct misgendering:  

  • Encourage Communication – Ask employees during the on-boarding process what name they go by and what pronouns they use. Once you know the employee’s name and pronouns, talk to them about how they would like to inform others of their preferred language. Whether and how to come out to others at work is an intensely personal decision, so it is important to let the employee choose that path. They might ask human resources to communicate this information to others. Or they might want to inform their coworkers and supervisors themselves. 
  • Consistent & Exclusive Use – Ensure that the proper name and pronouns are used on the person’s email, in the company directory, on their name tag, and in all documentation that does not require a legal name. For documents that do require a legal name, such as benefits paperwork and W-2s, use the person’s legal name but attach a note indicating the name they go by and their preferred pronouns.  
  • Policy Revisions – Revise your equal employment opportunity, harassment, and productive workplace policies to clarify that gender identity is a protected classification and to explicitly include misgendering as conduct that is harassing, disruptive, and unacceptable.  
  • Training – Train your workforce on the importance of always using correct names and pronouns when referring to employees. Remind employees of their duty to report intentional and repeated misgendering to human resources. 

Bottom Line
Employers have a legal obligation to protect transgender and non-binary employees from harassment based on their gender identity. Misgendering of employees, whether by other employees, by supervisors, or by customers, could contribute to a hostile work environment, so it is important to promptly address and correct this conduct. Employers can mitigate the risk of harassment by taking small steps to cultivate a culture of inclusion: sensitivity training, encouraging open communication with transgender and non-binary employees, and affirming the use of the employee’s correct name and pronouns with consistent and exclusive use of that language.

Emily Matta
Emily Matta

Foulston Employment Law Attorney