Indiana company doesn’t allow pronouns in email signatures
“Have you read it all? Erin Loughery asked their manager with shaking hands.
Their nerves weren’t stemming from regret – Loughery felt relieved as he submitted his resignation letter to Solution treean educational materials company based in Bloomington, where they had worked for two years until February.
While following up on their resignation with management, Loughery, who is non-binary and uses the pronouns she or they, wondered if a certain detail of their letter had been noticed.
“In my resignation letter, I have included information about people (transgender and non-binary) awaiting transition until they leave their jobs, and I have included my proper pronouns at the end,” Loughery said.
Until now, Loughery had used her and her pronouns at work and only now felt comfortable leaving the company to be open about their identities.
Their reluctance to be candid did not come out of nowhere. Loughery’s departure was spurred by Solution Tree’s new policy that does not allow employees to include their pronouns in electronic signatures.
“How someone wants to be identified has nothing to do with the advancement of the authors’ work. It has to do with the individual, just like race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or even causes, movements or societal changes they care about. Nothing to do with business,” Solution Tree CEO Jeff Jones wrote in an email to an employee while explaining the controversial decision.
Jones declined to speak with the Herald-Times for this story.
Since the policy was enforced, at least two employees have left Solution Tree, citing a lack of an inclusive work environment.
Loughery was quick to note that several of their colleagues were supportive of their exit. But it was their struggle with senior management over the new policy that ultimately caused them to step down.
“I felt like my direct manager, my small team and my department always had my back,” Loughery said. “But I couldn’t keep working (at Solution Tree).”
This is not an isolated incident in this area. In a 2019 study, many Monroe County Residents noted that their work environment does not offer the diversity and inclusion that they were promised during recruitment.
Promises must lead to policy, says expert
While Bloomington is known as a blue island in a red sea, many marginalized members of the community still struggle to feel accepted and valued in their professional lives.
“People think (this area is) more inclusive, more diverse and more welcoming and warm than it actually is,” said Nichelle Wash, owner and principal consultant of Guardian.
Guarden is a grassroots organization that provides diversity education training to businesses and nonprofits. Earlier this year, the company partnered with the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce host a series of free training sessions on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Speaker of the Chamber, Eric Spoonmore, noted that corporations have considerable influence and that it is part of their corporate responsibility to improve the community.
“It’s not just the government that decides the quality of life in the community,” Spoonmore said. “The business community – our small businesses, our employers, our workers all have a say in this.”
According to Spoonmore and Wash, investing in diversity initiatives has historically led to positive returns such as better profits and better community relations.
“The more diverse your organization is, the better your bottom line will be. But you can’t get the benefits of diversity unless you have your inclusive place,” Wash said.
Loughery was a member of Solution Tree’s diversity committee and believed the company was an inclusive space. Until the end of last year, employees had the choice whether or not to include pronouns in their electronic signatures. Many have done this to make it easier for customers and colleagues.
“When we talk about feeling included in the workplace, we need to normalize using someone’s pronouns as simply and easily as we use someone’s name. This will help people feel included” , said Wash.
Loughery said he had several conversations with senior management, particularly Jones, about the importance of prioritizing his pronoun in the workplace.
“I also realize that most people who put pronouns in their signatures do so both so others don’t misunderstand how they want to be identified and to generate conversation to protect those whose ‘identity is more vulnerable,” Jones wrote to an employee in an email obtained by The Herald-Times.
According to the email, employees could use pronoun identifiers internally for everyone within the company, but not in messages sent to customers.
“This is a corporate email and this company is meant to advance the work of our writers and not to draw attention to us as individuals or to what we care about personally. “, wrote Jones.
One of the most common issues Wash sees is that companies don’t already have an inclusive framework in place.
“After a new hire, someone comes along who brings a different need, and then (the company) scrambles to try to put things in order for them,” Wash noted. “The environment should be ready now to meet diverse people, not prepare after they get here.”
Between 40 and 50 local businesses participated in the chamber sessions, where Wash facilitated conversations about culturally sensitive communication, impostor syndrome and other topics.
Cardinal Stadium, a theater production company, was one of the local businesses that participated in the formation of the chamber. Artistic director Kate Galvin said Cardinal Stage had gone through a few diversity and inclusion programs, specifically hiring a consultant to tailor the training to their industry to focus on diversity in programming and the production process.
Galvin noted that these diversity trainings have helped Cardinal Stage edit its welcome package for contracted artists, adding inclusive options such as places of worship or local lounges.
“We really need to make sure they feel welcome in a predominantly white institution in a predominantly white city,” Galvin noted.
Galvin said Cardinal Stage employees are strongly encouraged to include their pronouns in communication channels.
“I think, especially in the theater industry, it’s such a common courtesy to include the use of pronouns, in any correspondence, so that people don’t just go by their assumptions,” Galvin said.
Galvin noted that Cardinal Stage’s full-time staff is not very diverse, which the organization would like to improve by its next merger.
Another common problem, according to Wash, is that some business leaders aren’t authentic and invested in their approach to diversity and inclusion. An inclusive environment is an ongoing job to maintain, but necessary to retain talented workers, Wash said.
Changing jobs for less pay, more inclusion
Amanda DeVita took a pay cut when she left Solution Tree to work at Soma Coffeehouse.
“My sanity isn’t worth a big payday,” DeVita said.
DeVita, who uses the pronouns she and they, worked at Solution Tree for eight months, leaving in March. At Solution Tree, DeVita said she felt isolated as a queer person who uses multiple pronouns.
“(Human Resources), senior management and the owner of the business didn’t make me feel that if I had a problem it would be heard or it would be dealt with in a way that would lead to education and inclusivity,” DeVita said.
DeVita has repeatedly recommended diversity, equity and inclusion training to its management. Nothing happened, she said.
The new pronoun policy was one of the last straws that caused DeVita to leave.
“It made me very anxious and I constantly felt like I wasn’t good enough,” DeVita said. “It made me feel like I wasn’t going to be successful in the job that I was doing because I just didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about my struggles, whether in a personal context or in a work-related context.”
According to Wash, this sense of isolation and self-doubt among workers can be common in work environments that lack proper inclusion guidelines and policies.
Wash explained that diversity and inclusion is a sustainable process for every company, and the job can be daunting at first for many who don’t want to say or do the wrong thing during training. It is essential to welcome dialogue with complete openness and a desire to write or update company policies.
Referencing the 2019 Workforce Attraction Survey, Wash said a safe and inclusive environment will help retain talented and diverse employees.
“Marginalized groups typically stay in Bloomington and Monroe County because of the community they’ve built. Businesses are a big part of what that community looks like,” Wash said.
Contact Rachel Smith at [email protected] or @RachelSmithNews on Twitter.