Preferred pronouns and the aging workforce

What takes priority?

There was a social media storm this week after a large non-profit organization terminated a volunteer after the volunteer questioned the point of having preferred pronouns in signature blocks.

The woman was 90 years old and had been a dedicated and award-winning volunteer for the organization for 60 years. Her deceased husband had the medical condition that was the raison d'etre of the organization and had also been a dedicated volunteer during his life.

As you can guess, in the social media storm that ensued, very little sympathy was expressed for the organization that let her go. In fact, it looks like the organization could become the next "Bud Light."

(Bud Light has been the target of boycotts after it featured Dylan Mulvaney -- a transgender model, actress, and social media influencer -- in one of its promotions.)

Anyway, back to our non-profit: According to the 90-year-old volunteer and her daughter, the volunteer had seen preferred pronouns on signature blocks and asked what that was all about. She was informed that the purpose of the pronouns was to be inclusive. The volunteer said that including "she/her" on emails did not seem particularly inclusive, since that excluded males. According to the volunteer and her daughter, that was the entire discussion. A few days afterward, she said she received a letter terminating her relationship with the nonprofit for failure to comply with its guidelines on diversity/equity/inclusion.

I keep saying "according to the volunteer and her daughter" because the organization has not provided its side of the story. It's possible that they would say the volunteer expressed more, and more offensively, than this. We don't know.

So for now, I'll assume the volunteer and her daughter have accurately recounted the story. If this is all she did, then I think the organization overreacted and should apologize and bring her back. If she'll take them.

What does the EEOC say about pronouns?

Not even the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is saying employers must require employees to include their pronouns in their signature blocks, website bios, etc. The EEOC's position is that if a person has preferred pronouns, the employer and employees have to respect that and use that person's preferred pronouns. The EEOC also acknowledges that employees can make mistakes with pronouns, and that making a mistake is not normally considered discrimination or harassment. It's only when a person repeatedly (thus, presumably, deliberately) uses the non-preferred pronouns that there could be legal implications.

The same principles apply to the use of "dead names" -- meaning the name that a transgender or nonbinary employee used in the past.

Should age be a mitigating factor?

Should employers acknowledge that the concept of preferred pronouns might be a little more of a challenge for a 90-year-old than it might be for a 40-year-old? Or even a 60-year-old? I think so, but I can't say my feelings are completely unmixed. What should an employer do if a white 90-year-old addresses Black co-workers they way some people would have done in 1950? Do I even have to ask?

The thought has also occurred to me that the 90-year-old volunteer may have shown signs of decline and that the organization (or, at least, the person who terminated the relationship) thought failure to comply with DEI guidelines might have been a convenient, non-age-related reason to call it quits. If so, then in hindsight the organization should have simply stated that the volunteer was no longer effective in her role.

Of course, because the woman was a volunteer and not an employee, none of the employment laws apply here. But this is a situation that employers may have to face in the not-too-distant future.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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