He/She or They? A Better Way

A friend told me yesterday about a survey she completed at work. It was an evaluation of a colleague, using a process called 360 degree feedback. The survey included 42 questions.

My friend was asked to evaluate one person, a man. However, all 42 questions included the pronoun they.

Example: Overall, they are a good team leader.

Because my friend is a careful reader and writer, the 42 grammatically incorrect theys irritated her and slowed her down. After all, she was evaluating him–not them.

Survey writers no doubt struggle with the pronoun gender issue and how to best construct questions. When I was growing up, the automatic choice would have been he and his. Nowadays that choice would be unthinkable, at least in many cultures and organizations.

The pronoun they is an awkward choice. They is plural, but the assessment focuses on one individual (a singular subject). There must be a better way, especially in a work environment that prides itself on good communication.

I believe the best, simplest option would be to create two assessments, one that uses she and her and another with he, him, and his. When someone received a request to complete an assessment, that person would simply choose the male or female version of the assessment.

However, if two versions, male and female, are unworkable, here are other suggestions to eliminate the offending they:

  • Use "he or she": Overall, he or she is a good team leader. This approach works well but can become cumbersome with more complex sentences that also include "his or her."
  • Use "he/she": Overall, he/she is a good team leader.
    Like the version above, this one works fine with simple sentences but is less effective with complex items.
  • Use "this individual": Overall, this individual is a good team leader.
    This approach works well because it can be followed by a "his or her": This individual handles his or her supervisory responsibilities well.
  • Use "this person": Overall, this person is a good team leader.
    "This person" works the same as "this individual."
  • Use a job title along with "his/her." The title might be manager, associate, sales rep or something else that suits the situation: Overall, the manager fulfills his/her responsibilities to the team.
  • Use a blank: Overall, ________ is a good team leader.

Do you have guidelines or best practices for handling the gender issue in surveys and other documents? Please share them.



  1. This is a tough one. Fortunately, I have been addressing the matter rather appropriately in my initial blogs for my business. I too learned that using “he, him, or his” would include males and females; however, the world has indeed changed! Thanks for your post.

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