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Employee Handbook Trends – Gender-Neutral Language

EverythingHR Staff | 09/30/2021 | Blog

It would probably be an amusing exercise to go back and find your company’s employee handbook from 50 or 60 years ago.  One thing we know is that it would be a lot shorter than it is today.  Possibly the longest policy would be the Cigarette Break policy.

We could also expect to see quite a bit of verbiage that might not pass the “PC” test for today’s employee communications.  In particular, the use of gender-specific language would probably seem extremely outdated and, similarly, it would not be surprising if our employees five or ten years in the future may look at our current handbooks as relics from a bygone era.

So, one more action item for HR – review your handbook and other employment-related documents to make sure they are worded in way by which future generations will be impressed by your foresight; or, if it is still a word at that time – your “wokeness.”

‘Are You Human?’ Tips for Using Gender-Neutral Language in Employment Documents

“Are you human? Are you a good human?” Those are the questions you should really be asking job candidates. The days of gender roles and glass ceilings should be behind us.

Words Matter

So, why do many employee handbooks, employment agreements, and interview questions still run along gender lines? What’s the point of using “him/her” or “s/he” in a handbook when “you” or “the employee” conveys the point just as easily?

If a document uses gender-specific language at the start of employment (e.g., in a handbook or employment contract), you risk potentially offending new employees from day one. In recent years, many employers have taken a hard look at their communications to ensure they’re promoting the principles of diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) to eliminate bias.

Many are using gender-neutral language to avoid word choices that may be interpreted as biased, discriminatory, or demeaning by implying one sex or social gender is the norm. For instance, an executive-level employment agreement in years gone by almost certainly would have been drafted to refer to a male filling the role. At best, the boilerplate language at the end would have included a provision indicating “a reference to one gender shall include reference to the other genders.”

Replace ‘He’ or ‘She’ with ‘You’ or ‘They’

Today, a template agreement is more commonly drafted in second person (e.g., “you are entitled to these benefits” or “you are expected to fulfill these job duties”) or third person (they/their/the employee).

If you use “they” as a pronoun, however, be sure to consider the jurisdiction in which you’re operating because it can be interpreted as singular or plural, and the courts haven’t come to a unanimous interpretation about the use of the word in contracts.

Other Best Practices

The safest route is to simply ask your employees about their preferred pronouns and use them when drafting the document. Pronoun preference isn’t “one-size-fits-all,” and what works for one nonbinary person may not work for another. If your intent is to be inclusive, the individual’s views must be taken into consideration.

Finally, when making changes to a template document, keep in mind “Find/Replace” may not catch everything. Take the time to review the document and ensure it says what you want it to say.

Article courtesy f content partner BLR.  Author, Kelsey Heino, is an employment attorney with the Goosmann Law Firm in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.