Design in the workplace: Workday, pronouns, and emergent behavior

When the tools we use in the workplace don’t support our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals, we may turn to hacking the system. Simple changes can make a big difference.

Cheryl Platz


As more working professionals become comfortable talking more directly about gender identity — particularly with regard to non-binary and gender-fluid identities —one finds that workplace systems aren’t optimized to support these interactions. When people take it upon themselves to work around outdated systems, unexpected things start to break. Wouldn’t it be easier to adapt the tools themselves?

In order to honor people’s pronoun choices, we need good ways to express them and learn about them in the workplace. But many current tools don’t support gender identity as separate from gender. Illustration licensed from Viktoria via Adobe Stock.

This post looks at the user experience implications of the use of pronouns in the workplace. You might ask, “Why do we need tools for this? Why not just have everyone announce their pronouns all the time?” For context: I’ve been told by several trusted friends in the LGBTQ+ community that requiring folks to openly declare their pronouns in meetings, as an example, is not necessarily desirable. For those in the throes of discovering or questioning their gender identity, this can be a complicated and triggering question. For those uncomfortable outing themselves in the workplace, openly declaring can be painful as it is denying an inner truth not currently expressed. It seems the ideal environment is one where there is widespread (and often passive) voluntary expression of pronouns across the spectrum from cisgender, gender fluid, non-binary, and transgender individuals.

System hacking for self-expression

The first wave of support for people expressing their gender identity in the workplace is usually a wave of people adding their personal pronouns to email signatures. This is a great first step.

However, as many of you have observed, the use of email is on a steep decline as the use of conversation-heavy tools like Slack and Teams takes prominence. These conversations don’t feature signatures. How do you convey your gender identity in the context of these conversations? And furthermore, how do you do it where it is most important — in the context of live meetings?

A “hack” I witnessed during my time at the Gates Foundation was the re-deployment of the “Preferred Name” feature in Workday. Individuals can log in at any time and change their Preferred Name — intended to change from a formal name to a nickname, for example. Most businesses have this feature hooked up so that the Preferred Name shows up in user interfaces like email and meetings, and is quickly updated when changed. But there’s no validation on the field, so I could conceivably give myself the preferred name Pikachu and it would go through without issue. People at work figured this out, and began to change their preferred name to include their pronouns using a parenthetical format.

By using this hack, my display name during meetings, in Teams, and in email went from “Cheryl Platz” to “Cheryl Platz [she/her],” allowing others to see my pronouns without asking, and helping to normalize the sharing of pronouns by others, including those who have changed their gender identity since birth.

This hack certainly isn’t unique to the Gates Foundation — in fact, in a brief search, I found guidance from Iowa State University about how to do this exact same trick.

The first page of Iowa State University’s instructions for overloading the Preferred Name field in Workday with preferred pronouns.

Unintended consequences

Well, doesn’t that solve the problem? Why call this a hack? Well, this isn’t the way Workday intended this field to be used. And many IT administrators didn’t expect this usage either. More than once, scripts used for automated actions on accounts failed on individuals who used this pronoun hack because of the special characters /, {, }, [, or ].

Support from the system

Workday doesn’t have to be a rigid tool. It can be extended with new data models, and that can include a field for preferred pronouns. That same Internet search yielded another school guide from the California College of the Arts which shows a Workday Student implementation that includes BOTH Gender and Gender Identity, the latter of which includes Male, Female, and Non-Binary and corresponds to the pronoun pairs accordingly.

The California College of the Arts’ description of the difference between their Gender and Gender Identity fields as implemented in Workday Student.

All of these examples are built on the same underlying platform, Workday — so it’s clearly possible to get the tool into a place where hacks are not required. And the more painless this process is, the more included many individuals will feel. Why not start the move towards a separate, dedicated way to declare pronouns?

The trick is, of course, that tools like Zoom, Teams, and Outlook are not inherently built to use or display this information yet. It’ll take more than one quick fix to get rid of the need for the hacks. But it’s a step in the right direction.

What other emergent behaviors have popped up in your workplace in spite of the tools you use? How could they be better supported by the systems of record? Just because we do things one way now doesn’t mean we need to do them that way forever! Particularly when changes mean steps towards greater inclusion across the board.

Cheryl Platz (she/her) is a designer, author, and on the continuous allyship journey. If anything in this post is could be phrased more accurately or sensitively, please let her know so that she can learn and make updates!



Cheryl Platz

Designer, actress, teacher, speaker, writer, gamer. Author of Design Beyond Devices. Founder of Ideaplatz, LLC. Director of UX, Player Platform @ Riot Games.