my employee refuses to use her coworker’s correct pronouns — Ask a Manager

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A reader writes:

I am a new manager at a medium sized public library. One of my employees came out as non-binary last summer and has started using a new name, “Alex,” and they/them pronouns. Their new name has been pretty easy for staff to pick up, but the pronouns have been challenging for all of us to varying degrees. I have another employee, “Jane,” who has become adamant that because she is Christian and her religion says there are only two genders, it is discriminatory for us to ask her to use they/them pronouns when referring to Alex. Library management has firmly taken the position that correct pronoun use is of vital importance to customer service and creating an inclusive workplace (and is not optional!) but it took us a while to get there and meanwhile our communications around this issue weren’t entirely clear.

There was an incident a few months ago when Jane cornered Alex and repeatedly demanded from them what “people of faith” are supposed to do because it’s against her religion to use they/them pronouns. During this conversation, Jane repeatedly misgendered Alex, refusing to be corrected to use they/them pronouns. Alex felt harassed, and several other staff members who witnessed the exchange reported concern for Alex’s well-being to management.

Jane was given a verbal warning by her previous supervisor about this behavior. I was coming on as her new supervisor and sat in on the meeting. During the meeting, when trying to explain the issue to Jane, I brought up the concept of intent vs. impact. Jane told me that “intent is reality” and that she felt like we were trying to brainwash her and that she is being discriminated against for being Christian. It was very clear from this conversation that we are living in different realities. Jane was upset by the implication that she hurt another person (because she’s “not a bad person”). We ended this conversation with the acknowledgement that everyone makes mistakes (that doesn’t make us “bad people” — just humans), we’re all learning, and we were hoping to see some improvement in Jane’s pronoun use, or at least an end to the misgendering.

The library has since had an all-staff training about gender identity which explained the differences between sex and gender and underscored the importance of respecting people of all genders, specifically transgender and non-binary people. In the training, the statistic was shared that other people using the correct pronouns can help to reduce depression, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts among transgender youth. We hoped that everyone would benefit from this training, but especially Jane.

Because of additional instances of misgendering, Jane has now been issued a written warning. I am at the point where I feel like I have given Jane ample opportunities to improve, and have shown her a lot of grace, trying to remember that everyone is on their own learning journey. I have also reached a wall in terms of the paradox of tolerance.

Is there anything you recommend for getting through to employees who just aren’t listening, or are so stuck in their own perspective they are unable to recognize others’ perspectives as valid? I want to address Jane’s behavior clearly and directly, but also demonstrate that I see her and respect where she is coming from. I recognize that I, too, am stuck in my own perspective to a certain degree, but I also have experience in recognizing and holding multiple people’s truths at once.

Jane’s truth is that she doesn’t respect her colleague’s identity, and she’s not willing to change her behavior to what the organization requires.

By all means, give people some grace and an opportunity to adjust to changes that may not be intuitive to them. But there’s a point where it stops being grace and starts being an acceptance of cruelty toward others. Jane may not see it as cruelty. But I assure you that Alex is experiencing it as cruelty, or worse. So are employees who are watching, some of whom may be concluding that it’s not safe for them at work either.

There are limits to what you should accept at work in the name of tolerance. If Jane told you her religion prevented her from being respectful to someone of another race or religion, I’m guessing you wouldn’t try to give her grace around that; you’d tell her treating colleagues respectfully was non-negotiable, and you’d fire her if she continued to refuse. In fact, the law would require you to do that. A religious accommodation can’t legally be “we will let you violate anti-discrimination laws.”

You sound very focused on wanting to get through to Jane and change her perspective. But it’s not really your role as an employer to change what’s in Jane’s heart. Your role is to clearly explain what behavior is required from her, and hold her accountable to that. She can believe whatever she wants, but she needs to treat everyone at work respectfully and follow your workplace policies.

You cannot give her endless grace, because it’s coming at Alex’s expense (and maybe the expense of others there too).

Your organization rightly decided that it’s committed to respecting people’s correct pronouns, and that it’s not optional. But right now, in practice, you’re letting it be optional for Jane. She either follows your employer’s policy and stops harassing Alex, or she needs to go.

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