Pronouns in the workplace - 6 points you may wish to think about
Posted on 21st April 2022 at 16:09
“My wife’s going to be sacked at the end of the month for refusing to include her pronouns in her e-signature. What can she do about it?”
Even if this plea posted on Twitter may have gained in the telling, the underlying point – on an issue that has attracted and continues to attract greater media awareness – is likely to be of interest for employers and employees alike. An employer insisting upon the use of pronouns in that manner, or an employee seeking the right to use them, may find no tangible improvement in quality of work or the workplace as a result. But either of them may be at risk of accidentally creating potential disciplinary and grievance issues.
Let’s look at a well known instance of misconduct, namely failure to obey a reasonable instruction. If this were to lead to dismissal after one or more warnings, its fairness would turn upon whether the order was legitimate and reasonable, and whether refusal to obey it was reasonable. “Legitimate” needs no further explanation in practice. “Reasonable” will qualify this – an order may be lawful, but that is not decisive.
“Reasonable refusal” is often encountered in cases involving overtime, working hours, retraining, transfers and duties. In the case of pronouns, and any requirement for their mandatory declaration via name badges, corporate stationery and e-stationery, the issue will come down to workplace rules and their presumed flouting via repeated refusal. It is not as if anyone is likely to face dismissal for a first refusal.
There are analogies with the well known cases that have featured overt religious expression in the workplace, and indeed philosophical belief expression. But only up to a point. In the context of the Twitter plea, the scenario evidently involves two conflicting standpoints. The employer demands that employees show collective solidarity with transsexual people and their plight. One or more employees refuse to be associated with what they perceive to be a political statement with which they disagree. Who is right?
No two situations are ever going to be quite the same. Someone working for an employer known for its long held commitment to social causes of that kind may have less scope to complain than one working for a more traditional employer that has chosen to follow a modern trend and wishes to encourage as many of its staff as possible to show support. But what if encouragement strays into arm twisting?
Now, let’s revise the Twitter plea into a hypothetical “my partner’s going to be sacked at the end of the month for refusing to take their pronouns out of their e-signature. I know they’ve been warned that employees are forbidden to alter e-signatures because it’s contrary to the firm’s corporate image and it breaches an internal policy, but is there anything they can do about it?” We are likely to be looking once more at the overt religious expression cases. What might be appropriate for a personal social media platform may be far from appropriate for workplace e-stationery. A grievance might be worth pursuing, to press for a policy change, but there may be little or no scope to cite reasonable refusal to obey the order.
In conclusion: -
1. Employers would be wise to stop and think carefully before insisting upon any change to workplace rules that involves mandatory pronoun declaration.
2. One way to approach the issue would be to propose the introduction of a new workplace policy and take prior soundings. Even then, preserving an individual right to opt out would make sense.
3. Alternatively, given the scope for conflict between employees with widely differing convictions about the issue, a more pragmatic approach might be to keep the issue out of the workplace altogether, and leave it for individuals and their social media platforms.
4. By contrast, employees who are well aware of a particular house style, and its reflection of their employer’s proclaimed values, may be well advised to reconsider any objections to “My pronouns are…” if they wish to pursue a career there.
5. Disciplinary action, at any stage, will always come down to reasonableness, where all of these factors may be relevant.
6. Employees who seek to proclaim their pronouns in the workplace ought not to overstep, taking into account that very same factor behind all disciplinary processes.
Do you have any concerns about pronoun declaration in the workplace? Or any other issue relating to disobedience, whichever side of the desk you sit? Have you any need for a revision to workplace policies, or for new policies to be introduced? Feel free to get in touch. Contact David Cooper via email@example.com or via 0121 325 5402.
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