Excerpted from a Constangy Brooks Smith & Prophete LLP Blog by Robin Shea

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.

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.

What does the EEOC say about pronouns?

Not even the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 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 the way some people would have done in 1950? Do I even have to ask?

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