By Deborah Hopkins, July 18, 2022

There are many polarizing topics (abortion, gun control, COVID-19 vaccines, political affiliation) in this country. We’re going to address another topic that generates feelings almost as strongly in certain circles: pronoun use and gender identity.

Last month, the EEOC introduced a gender marker option X for non-binary individuals who wish to file complaints. The State Department allows gender X on passports and travel documents, and some agencies are considering requiring all employees to identify their preferred pronouns in their email signatures.

Pronouns are an important piece of the gender identity equation, including within the context of the workplace. Refusal to use an employee’s preferred pronoun, or name, has been problematic for agencies in recent years, not just from a liability perspective but because of the impact of the harassment on the complainants.

As more employees share their pronouns in email signatures, on social media, and in participant lists on Zoom sessions, it’s worth a review of the law on this topic.

Pronouns fall under the sex discrimination umbrella of Title VII workplace protections, within the sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) category, and violations of pronoun or name use could result in illegal discrimination or harassment. Complainant v. USPS, EEOC Appeal No. 0120122376 (February 19, 2013), request for reconsideration denied, EEOC Request No. 0520130241 (Jan.10, 2014). EEOC recently addressed a specific question in a Q & A document:

Q: Could use of pronouns or names that are inconsistent with an individual’s gender identity be considered harassment?

A: Yes, in certain circumstances. Unlawful harassment includes unwelcome conduct that is based on gender identity. To be unlawful, the conduct must be severe or pervasive when considered together with all other unwelcome conduct based on the individual’s sex including gender identity, thereby creating a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or offensive. In its decision in Lusardi v. Dep’t of the Army [EEOC Appeal No. 0120133395 (Apr. 1, 2015)], the Commission explained that although accidental misuse of a transgender employee’s preferred name and pronouns does not violate Title VII, intentionally and repeatedly using the wrong name and pronouns to refer to a transgender employee could contribute to an unlawful hostile work environment. [bold added]. EEOC’s Protections Against Employment Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity, Q. 11. [bold added]

While intentional misuse can violate the law, accidental misuse of a transgender employee’s preferred name and pronouns does not generally violate Title VII. EEOC’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) Discrimination. Take, for example, Colleen M. v. USDA, EEOC Appeal No. 120130552 (May 25, 2016). In this case, the supervisor referred to the complainant, a trans female, as “Eric” even though the complainant no longer used that name.

There was no evidence the supervisor used that name intentionally, and “when it was brought to [the supervisor’s] attention that he made an error, he went to the union and explained to them that there was no malicious intent, and he apologized to Complainant.” This one instance followed by a prompt apology, did not state a claim.

A number of cases can help determine the point when pronoun misuse becomes severe or pervasive and creates a hostile environment. It’s a topic your agency is sure to deal with more frequently as the Administration continues its advancement of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) in the Federal workplace. Training is a vital component to getting this right, so please bring your entire agency (supervisors, employees, and contractors) and join me on August 2 from 1 – 2pm ET for the webinar Promoting Inclusion: Pronoun Use and Gender Identity in the Workplace. [email protected]

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