‘Have you read it all?’ Erin Loughery asked their manager with trembling hands.
Their nerves weren’t born of regret – Loughery felt relieved when they submitted their letter of resignation to solution treea Bloomington-based teaching materials company, where they had worked for two years until February.
Loughery, who is non-binary and she or she uses pronouns, while following up on their resignation from management, wondered if any particular detail of their letter had been noticed.
“In my letter of resignation, I folded the information about (transgender and non-binary) people who wait to transition until after they leave work, and I added my proper pronouns at the end,” Loughery said.
Until now, Loughery had used she and her pronouns at work and only now, upon leaving the company, did she feel comfortable being open about their identities.
Their reluctance to be candid didn’t come out of nowhere. Loughery’s departure was spurred on by Solution Tree’s new policy that does not allow employees to include their pronouns in email signatures.
“How someone wants to be identified has nothing to do with advancing the authors’ work. It has to do with the individual, as does race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or even causes, movements or societal changes in which they are interested. Nothing to do with business,” Jeff Jones, Solution Tree’s chief executive officer, wrote in an email to an employee while explaining the controversial decision.
Jones declined to speak to The Herald-Times for this story.
Since the policy was enforced, at least two employees have left Solution Tree due to a lack of an inclusive environment at work.
Loughery soon noticed several of their colleagues supporting me when they came out. But it was their struggle with senior management over the new policies that ultimately led them to step down.
“I felt like my direct manager, my small team and my department were always behind me,” 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 Residents of Monroe County noted that their work environment does not have the diversity and inclusion they were promised during the recruitment.
Promises should lead to policy, says expert
Although Bloomington is known as a blue island in a red state sea, many marginalized members of the community still struggle to feel accepted and valued in their professional lives.
“People believe that (this area) is more inclusive and diverse and homey and loving than it really is,” said Nichelle Wash, owner and principal adviser of guarding†
Guarden is a local organization that provides diversity education training to businesses and non-profit organizations. Earlier this year, the company partnered with the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce host a series free training on diversity, equality and inclusion.
House Speaker Eric Spoonmore noted that companies have a far-reaching influence and that it is part of their social responsibility to improve the community.
“It is not just the government that should determine the quality of life of the community,” Spoonmore said. “Businesses — our small businesses, our employers, our employees all have a say in that.”
According to Spoonmore and Wash, investing in diversity initiatives has historically led to positive returns, such as improved profits and better community relationships.
“The more diverse your organization, the better your results will be. But you can’t reap the benefits of diversity unless you have your inclusive place,” said Wash.
Loughery served on Solution Tree’s diversity committee and believed the company was an inclusive space. Until late last year, employees had the option of including pronouns in their email signatures. Many did this to make it easier for customers and colleagues.
“When it comes to feeling included in the workplace, we need to normalize the use of someone’s pronouns as simply and easily as we use someone’s name. That will help people feel included,” Wash said.
Loughery said they had multiple conversations with senior management, especially Jones, about how the pronoun is important in prioritizing a workplace.
“I also realize that most people who sign pronouns do so both to prevent others from misidentifying with how they want to be identified, and to start the conversation to protect those whose identities are more vulnerable. Jones wrote to an employee in an email obtained by The Herald-Times.
According to the email, employees could use pronoun IDs internally for everyone in the company, but not in messages sent to customers.
“This is a corporate email and this company is about advancing the work of our authors and not highlighting us as individuals or what we personally care about,” Jones wrote.
One of the most common problems Wash sees is that companies don’t yet have an inclusive framework.
“After a new hire, someone comes along and brings in a different need, and then (the company) tries to get things right,” Wash noted. “The environment should now be ready for when you meet different people, and not be ready after they get here.”
Between 40 and 50 local businesses participated in the chamber’s sessions, where Wash facilitated conversations about culturally sensitive communication, imposter syndrome, and other topics.
cardinal stage, a theater production company, was one of the local companies that participated in the chamber’s training. Artistic Director Kate Galvin said Cardinal Stage has undergone a number of programs on diversity and inclusion, most notably hiring a consultant to tailor the training to his industry to focus on diversity in programming and the production process.
Galvin noted that these diversity training courses helped Cardinal Stage craft the welcome package for contracted artists, adding inclusive options, such as local places of worship or salons.
“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 it’s such a common courtesy these days, especially in the theater industry, to include the use of pronouns in all correspondence so that people don’t just fall short on their assumptions,” Galvin said.
Galvin noted that Cardinal Stage’s full-time workforce is not very diverse, which is something the organization would like to improve in the upcoming merger.
According to Wash, another common problem is that some business leaders are not authentic and invest in their approach to diversity and inclusion. An inclusive environment is ongoing work to retain, but necessary to retain talented employees, Wash said.
Changing jobs for less pay, more inclusion
Amanda DeVita got a pay cut when she left Solution Tree to work at Soma Coffeehouse.
“My mental health isn’t worth a big paycheck,” DeVita said.
DeVita, who uses she and she pronouns, spent eight months at Solution Tree and left 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 company didn’t make me feel like if I had a problem it would be heard or treated in a way that would lead to education and inclusiveness,” DeVita said.
DeVita has recommended diversity, equality and inclusion training to her management several times. Nothing happened, she said.
The new pronoun policy was one of the last straws that prompted DeVita to leave.
“It made me have a lot of anxiety and constantly feel like I wasn’t good enough,” DeVita said. “It made me feel like I wouldn’t succeed at the job I was doing because I just didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about my struggles, either in a personal context or in a work-related context.”
According to Wash, this sense of isolation and self-doubt among employees can often occur in work environments that lack proper guidance and policies for inclusivity.
Wash explained that diversity and inclusion is a sustainable process for any business, and the work can be intimidating at first for many who don’t want to say or do anything wrong during training. It is vital to organize a dialogue with complete openness and a desire to write or update company policies.
Referring to the 2019 workforce attractiveness survey, Wash said a safe, inclusive environment will help retain talented, diverse employees.
“Marginalized groups tend to stay in Bloomington and Monroe County because of the community they’ve built. The businesses are a big part of what that community looks like,” Wash said.
Contact Rachel Smith at [email protected] or @RachelSmithNews on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Indiana company does not allow pronouns in email signatures