The New Grammar: Pronoun Training at Zillow

A cadence of practices and training is designed to make sure people’s identities are respected in the workplace.

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When Zillow’s CEO introduced himself at an all-hands meeting last year, he quietly created a meaningful moment for many of his employees with one simple statement: “I’m Rich Barton, and my pronouns are he, him, and his.” As the meeting progressed, the rest of the presenting executives followed suit. 

“I’ll always remember that moment,” says Brenna Penrod, who is president of Zillow’s Pride Network and a connections team manager. For Brenna and many others, it was a big step forward in modeling the kind of equitable and inclusive workplace Zillow has always strived to maintain. “We heard from some members of our network comments like ‘I never thought I’d work at a company where the leaders use their pronouns.’ It makes people proud to work here.”

That moment was one of a steady cadence of practices and training designed to educate Zillow employees and create a safe space and the option of sharing pronouns, so people’s identities are clear upfront and respected in the workplace. The company’s internal training portal, Zillow University, offers optional virtual webinars on the subject. Employees may choose to add pronouns to email signatures and on the company’s intranet, known as the Zall Wall. Teams may also introduce pronouns on messaging apps such as Slack or on video conferencing apps. For some employees, the practice has spread to their personal lives, with their pronouns listed in non-work email signatures or on professional sites such as LinkedIn. 

In a workplace where pronouns are routinely shared, people don’t need to constantly ‘come out’ at work. 

Brenna Penrod

Pronoun sharing bolsters equity and belonging for employees, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community who often shoulder the burden of having to proactively explain their pronouns to coworkers or otherwise suffer with or correct mistakes. It also reduces the potential for insult from well-meaning employees who misidentify teammates when “guessing” or due to fading notions that gender expression is a strict binary.

Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. surveyed LGBTQ+ employees at multiple corporate employers and found that more than 50% of these workers had to come out as often as once a week — a syndrome it referred to as a “coming out conundrum.” 

“Pronoun training normalizes everyone sharing how they’d like to be addressed,” says Penrod. “In a workplace where pronouns are routinely shared, people don’t need to constantly ‘come out’ at work.” 

Presenting pronouns

Zillow’s Learning & Development team partnered with the Pride Network to develop a 20-minute virtual course on pronouns that launched in June 2020, and is available to any full-time employee. According to Penrod, protocols around pronouns were a top priority.

“One of the top questions we hear is ‘How do I ask someone what their pronouns are?’” Penrod says. “And when people ask us how we can be better allies to the LGBTQ+ community, explaining pronouns is the number-one response.” 

While many people are accustomed to referring to other individuals as he/she and him/her, increasingly new sets of pronouns — “they/them,” “she/they,” and “he/they” — are in usage. “’They’ as a singular pronoun is new for some people, and it can take some getting used to,” Penrod says. 

But using a coworker’s correct pronouns is a simple but profound way to encourage inclusivity, and reduce misunderstanding and bias.

In the six months since pronoun training launched, more than 600 Zillow employees have completed the course, according to Corina Kolbe, Vice President of Learning & Development at Zillow. It’s one of seven courses focused on nurturing equity and belonging, and was developed using original insights from the Pride Network and other resources. A large population of Zillow leaders and employees – 18%, more than 1,100 people – belong to its Pride Network, identifying either as LGBTQ+ or as an ally. 

“Our courses on equity and belonging are important for managers and employees because at Zillow, people know that fostering an inclusive workspace is not just a work expectation, it’s the right thing to do,” says Kolbe. “We’re looking forward to furthering our work with the Pride Network and Zillow’s other affinity networks to continue to create educational content that fosters belonging and equity among our employee community.”

For those who want to go deeper with allyship and gain a more nuanced understanding about pronouns, Penrod suggests reading How to be A Trans Ally, a free guide available from the organization PFLAG, and Gender Diversity and Non-Binary Inclusion in the Workplace by Sarah Gibson. “It’s just scratching the surface,” says Penrod. “But it’s an important place to start.”