The American workplace has moved in recent years toward creating more-inclusive environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees – for example, by making health benefits available to same-sex partners. The U.S. Supreme Court underscored that trend in a landmark June 15, 2020, decision, ruling that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or transgender status.
The progression toward LGBT-friendly workplace cultures also has placed attention on respect for nonbinary workers – that is, those who do not define themselves as either specifically male or specifically female. In addition to “nonbinary,” terms for these individuals include gender neutral, gender fluid, gender queer and gender nonconforming.
Nonbinary people may identify themselves as both male and female, as blending male and female characteristics, as having no specific gender, as someone whose gender may change situationally or over time or in other gender categories. Many of these individuals avoid using gender-specific pronouns, such as “he,” “she,” “him” or “her,” instead referencing themselves as “they” or “them.”
Resolving the question of how to make nonbinary employees comfortable will become increasingly important as younger workers take the places of older, retiring workers. A 2017 Harris Poll commissioned by LGBTQ advocacy group GLADD showed that the numbers of people who identify as nonbinary is increasing among millennials and Generation Z (from 2% of respondents in the 52- to 71-year-old age group to 8% in the 18- to 34-year-old age group). These statistics do not include respondents who were unsure/questioning (2% in both groups) or those who identify as transgender (>0.5% and 2%, respectively), a group that could include additional nonbinary individuals.
Helping gender-neutral employees feel like they belong
Recognizing that the number of nonbinary workers is already a factor and is likely to increase, small businesses should think now about the culture and policy decisions they should make to make sure their workplaces are diverse and inclusive for gender-nonconforming individuals. Steps to take include:
- Double check your hiring guidelines to ensure they state that gender designations of any kind will not be considered in your company’s employment practices.
- Make sure your policies note that your organization does not tolerate discrimination or harassment against nonbinary workers.
- Consider replacing “he-” and “she”-related pronouns in your employee handbook, policies and other materials with “they,” “them” and “their.”
- Eliminate any gender-specific restrictions or rules in your dress code, replacing them with references to appropriately professional dress for your workplace.
- Revisit your onboarding and employee training materials and practices. Amend them as needed to ensure they communicate that gender-neutral employees are to be treated with the same respect and professionalism as all others are.
- Allow employees to use restrooms that correspond to their personal gender identification. This may mean that, for nonbinary employees, you need to create private, unisex, centrally located facilities that may be used by any employee at any time.
- Consider allowing employees to list their pronouns – he/his/him, she/her/hers or they/them/theirs – on job applications, in company HR systems and in their email signatures. During the onboarding process, use employees’ preferred pronouns in introducing them. Consistently model the practice of referencing gender-nonconforming workers using their preferred pronouns.
- If you learn that a current employee prefers not to be treated as male or female, let the employee know that your organization will take steps to make sure the worksite is inclusive and professional.
- Conduct additional training or otherwise educate your team so that managers and colleagues are well aware of the company’s acceptance of the employee’s status. Explain how they are expected to refer to and interact with the employee. Abide by the nonbinary employee’s wishes to be included in the educational process – or not.
The response to nonbinary workers’ needs will become more mainstream in the years ahead. In the meantime, small business employers must move in that direction, demonstrating sensitivity and conscientiously fostering diversity and inclusivity.