“Hello, We have a new coworker whose name is masculine, appearance masculine and we use the pronoun “they”. They have said they are comfortable with female pronouns, not male. Things are going well on the coworker side, however recently the coworker came to me and expressed discomfort with the customers. We work in retail and customers often use male pronouns – that is what they see on name tag or appearance, they aren’t trying to be rude but they don’t know. How can we help in this situation?”
This is an excellent question, and actually I have a question before I get going (rhetorical I know because you’re Anonymous and can’t reply)! I’m wondering what you mean when you say “we use the pronoun ‘they’” if this person actually is comfortable with female pronouns. I don’t have more information, but this feels like something to check in on. What actually are the pronouns this person would like co-workers to use: she/her or they/them?
On to the bigger question: how can a workplace support an employee whose pronouns aren’t the ones that strangers would ordinarily apply when encountering them? Customers are kind of like friendly strangers (and sometimes unfriendly strangers): not terribly invested in getting to know the details of customer service representatives’ lives or identities. Retail interactions at their best are cordial, brief and truncated. This reminds of what I say in my book about how pronoun go-rounds don’t happen in places where people aren’t expected to engage with each other, like at restaurants or the opera. Retail might be a space like that. You also likely don’t have a repeat clientele who can gradually learn about your co-worker or your space, and begin using correct pronouns over time.
In a gender utopia, we wouldn’t always use each other’s gender expression to infer pronouns. We do not live in this utopia, and so moving about with a masculine name and gender expression but having she/her pronouns is a very exhausting life. My respect and empathy for your co-worker. When her gender expression is read by customers as meaning that he/him pronouns are appropriate, and that doesn’t reflect her gender identity, then I can only imagine how work must go for her: tough, tiring and frustrating. Chances are that she is mis-gendered all of the time and that work isn’t the only place where this happens.
This brings me to the first strategy I have for you. If you have a friendly relationship, literally just check in and ask how she is doing, and ask whether this happens elsewhere, too. Encourage her to think about how she manages this when it happens outside of work; chances are she has some tools and skills. Can these be applied in your workplace?
My second strategy is to suggest to your management – with your co-worker’s consent – that employees be encouraged to have pronouns on their name tags. This could help to clue in some customers, or even just give your co-worker a thing to do: point to her name tag.
In retail, there are all kinds of ways to work. I’d encourage your co-worker to talk to the management about having breaks from front-of-house to work in the backroom only because these are also breaks from being consistently mis-gendered on the floor. This is my third strategy.
A fourth strategy is to ask your co-worker whether she is comfortable with you gently (and I mean gently) correcting customers who mis-gender her. It might be a good idea to talk about safety here, as doing this would out her (my second strategy above also carries this risk). Sadly, this is a cost-benefit situation. The toll of being mis-gendered is something to weigh against her safety in the workplace.
Lastly, it might just be the case that frontline retail jobs with your company, for whatever reason, are not a sustainable fit for some trans people. Your management could offer your co-worker opportunities to train and develop other skills that could lead to positions that will entail less mis-gendering. This is not preferential treatment – it is equity. It’s also harm reduction: this shouldn’t be needed, but it might be because this is where we are.
I hope this helps, and thank you for a thought-provoking question!
All the best,