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Does the language in your employee handbook support gender diversity?

Gender neutral language employee handbook

If you have a transgender or LGBTQ colleague or employee or care about ensuring an open, gender diverse and supportive workplace, you may want to consider reviewing the language / gender pronouns in your employee handbook.

Gender-biased Language in your Employee Handbook

If your employee handbook still uses the following gender biased pronouns, you may inadvertently be sending the message that you're not supportive of a gender diverse workforce: 

  • he, she, her, him, hers, his, herself, himself, including catch-all terms such as he/she, or him/her.
  • sister, brother, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, etc, in the case where you’re defining 'immediate family' as it relates to certain leaves.   

Consider using the following gender-neutral terms to create more appropriate and respectful language:

  • they, them, their, theirs, themselves
  • sibling(s), parent(s), grandparent(s), parent’s sibling, child of a parent’s sibling, cousin.   

It’s not as Difficult as you May Think

Our main concern 4 years ago when we decided to update our products - and specifically our basic employee handbook and comprehensive orientation manual templates - was the time commitment and the risk of sounding awkward and forced with the new language. To our surprise, the transition was painless. The time commitment was minimal and the employee handbook templates are actually much less awkward to read than when the manuals included endless repetition of he/she, him/her.  

We also had 6 employee handbook templates to update and 200 documents to review. Chances are, you only have to update one!   

You’re not alone

Only recently has provincial Employment Standards language been updated to use gender-neutral language when referring to eligible family members for certain legislated leaves. As of the date of this post, Ontario ESA continues to unnecessarily use the terms ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ in the Act when defining family members that could easily be changed to ‘siblings’.  

No Transgender / LGBTQ Employees, you Say?

You may declare that there are no transgender / LGBTQ employees in your workplace and that this type of employee handbook review won’t make it to the top of your priority list any time soon. But how do you really know?  The answer is you don’t.

Consider that the language you’re using in one of the most referred-to employee documents may well be contributing to your transgender employees' reluctance to come forward to communicate their needs – and often discomfort. We’ve seen some progress made in the area of transgender support and education, but there’s still a long road ahead before transgender employees are comfortable approaching you to help support gender diversity and use the language and pronouns they need  - and coming to expect - in order to feel comfortable and welcome in your workplace.

More often than not, when your language isn't already up to snuff and you haven't been proactive, the transgender employee may feel that their disclosure and request comes across as an imposition and demand for additional consideration and work for you - when accommodating and respecting gender diversity has become the norm for any progressive (and in many cases, law-abiding) small business. 

Bottom line

Don’t wait until until you receive a request from one of your people to support them in their gender transition. Start regularly taking small steps and measures to make your workplace more inclusive for them. Show that you're proactive and sensitive to the needs of existing and future transgender employees.

Begin with changing your employee handbook language and gender pronouns as soon as is feasible.  You just may find that one day soon, you'll begin to cringe when you come across language such as 'he', 'she' or 'he/she' where the gender identification of the subject or reader is unknown.  The new normal is here.

We can Help!

Don't have an employee manual? Or looking to update yours?  Our employee handbook kit includes 2 Microsoft Word® templates for Ontario, Alberta and BC to create a basic employee handbook or a comprehensive orientation manual - or both! Each template includes: 

  • 100% gender-neutral
  • Written informally for today's workforce
  • Step-by-step instructions
  • Help for each policy or topic
  • Beautifully formatted
  • Legislated updates

Learn more

Ariane Laird Vancouver

Ariane Laird is CEO & Founder of ConnectsUs HR, a company that provides tools & resources to quickly set up a Human Resources department.  
You can contact her directly from the Inquiry Type drop down menu.