"Did you read the whole thing?" Erin Loughery asked their manager, hands shaking.
Their nerves didn't stem from regret — Loughery felt relieved while submitting their resignation letter to Solution Tree, a Bloomington-based education materials company, where they had worked for two years until this February.
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While following up about their resignation with management, Loughery, who is nonbinary and uses she or they pronouns, was wondering whether a certain detail of their letter had been noticed.
"In my resignation letter, I folded in the piece of information about (transgender and nonbinary) people waiting to transition until after they leave their work, and I included my proper pronouns at the end," Loughery said.
Until this point, Loughery had used she and her pronouns at work and only felt comfortable now, when leaving the company, to be open about their identity.
Their hesitation to be candid didn't come out of nowhere. Loughery's departure was spurred by Solution Tree's new policy that doesn't allow employees to include their pronouns in email signatures.
"How someone wants to be identified has nothing to do with advancing the work of the authors. It has to do with the individual, just like race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or even causes, movements, or societal changes they are interested in. Nothing to do with business," Jeff Jones, chief executive officer of Solution Tree, 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's enforcement, at least two employees have left Solution Tree, citing a lack of an inclusive environment at work.
Loughery was quick to note several of their colleagues were supportive when they came out. But it was their struggle with senior management over the new policy that eventually pushed them to resign.
"I felt like my direct manager, my small team and my department always had my back," Loughery said. "But I couldn't continue to work (at Solution Tree)."
This is not an isolated incident in this area. In a 2019 study, many Monroe County residents noted their workplace environment does not have the diversity and inclusion they'd been promised during recruitment.
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While Bloomington is known as a blue island in a red state sea, many marginalized community members still struggle to feel accepted and valued in their professional lives.
"People believe that (this area is) more inclusive and more diverse and more homey and lovey, than it actually is," said Nichelle Wash, owner and primary consultant of Guarden.
Guarden is a local organization that provides diversity education training to businesses and nonprofits. Earlier this year, the company partnered with the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce to host a series of free diversity, equity and inclusion training sessions.
Chamber President Eric Spoonmore noted businesses have a far-reaching influence and it's part of their corporate responsibility to better the community.
"It's not just the government that gets to make those quality of life determinations of the community," Spoonmore said. "The business community — our small businesses, our employers, our workers all have a say in that."
According to Spoonmore and Wash, a investing in diversity initiatives has historically led to positive returns such as better profits and improved community relations.
"The more diverse your organization, the better your outcomes are going to 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. Up until late last year, employees had a choice whether to include pronouns in their email signatures. Many did to make it easier for clients and colleagues.
"When we talk about feeling included in the workplace, we have to normalize using someone's pronouns just as simply and as easily as we use someone's name. That will help people feel included," Wash said.
Loughery said they had multiple conversations with upper management, especially Jones, about how one's pronoun is important to prioritize in a workplace setting.
"I also realize that most people who put pronouns in their signatures are doing it both so that others don’t misidentify with how they want to be identified, and to generate 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 would be able to use pronoun identifiers internally for everyone inside the company, but not in messages sent to clients.
"This is a company email and this company is about advancing the work of our authors and not bringing any attention to us as individuals or what we care about personally," Jones wrote.
One of the most common issues Wash sees is businesses not having an inclusive framework already in place.
"After a new hire, someone who brings in a different need, comes along, then (the business) scrambles to try to get things in order for them," Wash noted. "The environment should be ready now for when you encounter diverse people, not getting ready after they get here."
Between 40 to 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 businesses that took part in the chamber's training. Artistic director Kate Galvin said Cardinal Stage has undergone a few programs on diversity and inclusion, specifically hiring a consultant to tailor the training to its industry to focus on diversity in programming and the production process.
Galvin noted these diversity trainings helped Cardinal Stage edit its welcome packet for contracted artists, adding inclusive options such as local houses of worship or salons.
"We have to really make sure that they feel welcome at a predominantly white institution in a predominantly white town," Galvin noted.
Galvin said Cardinal Stage employees are highly encouraged to include their pronouns in communication channels.
"I think, especially in the theater industry, it's such a common courtesy now to include pronoun usage, in all correspondence, so that people aren't just defaulting to their assumptions," Galvin said.
Galvin noted Cardinal Stage's full-time staff is not very diverse, which is something the organization would like to improve on in its upcoming merger.
According to Wash, another common issue is some business leaders are not authentic and invested in their approach to diversity and inclusion. An inclusive environment is ongoing work to maintain, but necessary to keep talented workers, Wash said.
Changing jobs for lesser pay, more inclusion
Amanda DeVita took a pay cut when she left Solution Tree to work at Soma Coffeehouse.
"My mental health is not worth a big paycheck," DeVita said.
DeVita, who uses she and they pronouns, 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), upper management and the owner of the company didn't make me feel like if I had an issue, it would be heard or it would be dealt with in a way that would lead to education and inclusivity," DeVita said.
DeVita recommended diversity, equity and inclusion training to her management several times. Nothing happened, she said.
The new pronoun policy was one of the final straws that pushed 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 wasn't going to succeed in 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 feeling of isolation and self-doubt among workers can be common in work environments that do not have proper inclusivity guidance and policy.
Wash explained diversity and inclusion is an enduring process for every business, and the work can be initially intimidating for many who don't want to say or do the wrong thing during the training. It's vital to host a dialogue with complete openness and a desire to write or update corporate policies.
Referencing the 2019 workforce attraction survey, Wash said a safe, inclusive environment will help retain talented, diverse employees.
"Marginalized groups usually stay in Bloomington and Monroe County because of the community that they built. The businesses are a huge part of what that community looks like," Wash said.
Contact Rachel Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or @RachelSmithNews on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Indiana company doesn't allow pronouns in email signatures