Why Language Matters: Using Inclusive Language in the Workplace

By DeVryWorks

July 12, 2023


Language is a powerful tool. It can be used to build relationships and bring people together, or to isolate them and make them feel marginalized or even excluded. We all share a responsibility to remove words and phrases from our vernacular that may be harmful to others. Organizations looking to build more diverse and inclusive workplaces should understand the importance of inclusive language as a means of fostering change in their corporate culture and encouraging diversity, inclusion and belonging.

In this discussion, we will be taking a look at inclusive language as a means of demonstrating an organization’s commitment to workplace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), including benefits and best practices, some common mistakes to avoid and how to implement the use of inclusive language.

What is Inclusive Language?

Inclusive language is defined by the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) as language that acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences and promotes equal opportunities.

In written or verbal communication, we can choose to be proactive, avoiding the traps that can unintentionally lead to marginalization, gender or racial stereotyping, or misrepresentation, and paving the way for that conveyance of respect. The LSA points to statements like “Women are more polite than men,” and “Asians tend to perform well on standardized tests” as examples of language that may seem positive or well-intentioned, but perpetuates stereotypes. And by applying labels to groups of individuals who share certain characteristics of their identities, we dismiss their individuality.

The Benefits of Using Inclusive Language in the Workplace

The use of inclusive language can certainly have a positive effect on an organization’s efforts to cultivate an inclusive workplace and an environment that champions DEI, but its benefits can extend far beyond the office confines.

Using inclusive language demonstrates an organizational commitment to DEI and reinforces diversity, inclusion and belonging as core values central to the company culture. It also reduces discrimination and bias by actively discouraging exclusionary language and conduct. Because it tends to improve communication and collaboration, inclusive language breaks down barriers, building trust and mutual respect among colleagues.  By speaking with an inclusive voice in external communications, organizations can experience a lift in their reputation and the perception of their brand.

Best Practices for Using Inclusive Language in the Workplace

The language of inclusion is not difficult to adopt if an organization recognizes the individuality of its members and exercises empathy in the way its members communicate. This can be put into action in several ways.

Avoiding Stereotypes

Language that perpetuates or celebrates cultural stereotypes should be avoided. Whether they are the product of cultural conflicts of the past or the present, racial stereotypes or cultural stereotypes, such as the “dumb blonde” or the “computer nerd,” have no place in the lexicon of a progressive, forward-thinking organization.  

Being Mindful of Cultural Differences

In the workplace, it is important to avoid idioms or phrases that may be popular “shorthand” but actually carry connotations of cultural oppression, colonialism or racism. A few examples include:

  • The term “gypped” is a racist term stemming from the word “gypsy.” Use the term “duped” or “tricked” instead.

  • In Buddhist and Hindu religions, “guru” is a title of high esteem. To use it as shorthand to describe someone’s level of experience in social media or car repair trivializes both the title and its origins. Use the term “expert” or “authority” instead.

  • The term “peanut gallery” is often used indiscriminately to describe a group of observers whose opinions are not valued. This phrase originates from the late 19th century, referring to the “cheap seats” occupied by Black people in segregated theaters. An inclusive and non-offensive term would be “hecklers” or “jokesters.” 

  • Problematic and outdated terms like “minority” or “minority group” should be replaced by “marginalized” or “underrepresented” groups. The terms “people of color” and BIPOC, which is an acronym for Black, Indigenous and People of Color, can also be used when referencing groups of non-white people in the context of their shared socio-economic position or status.

Inclusive language supports racial identity and equality. An inclusive language policy recognizes how invalidating the misidentification of someone’s race or ethnicity can be, and encourages speaking both plainly and intelligently. It also recognizes the specific race, ethnicity and national origin of people, and that people can have multiple racial and ethnic identities. 

Avoiding Gendered Language

Gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language jettisons the implicit bias toward two genders (male and female) and heteronormative gender assumptions, and is inclusive to employees of all sexual orientations and gender identities. A few simple examples of non-gendered language include:

  • Workforce hours or work hours, in place of “man-hours”

  • Chairperson or Chair, in place of “Chairman”

  • Partner, significant other or parent, in place of “husband, wife, mother or father”

Using Appropriate Pronouns

According to the LSA, it should, by now, be considered standard practice to avoid the use of gender-specific terms, such as “man” or “woman.” 

  • When presenting a generalization, use plural noun forms that are not gender-specific (people, students, individuals, and the like) or the plural pronoun “they” instead of defaulting to the male pronoun “he.”

  • In place of the masculine default terms like “Mankind” or “Congressman,” use gender-neutral terms like “humanity” and “Member of Congress.”

  • Avoid triggering inferences around traditional roles by avoiding the use of modifiers, such as “female professor” or “male nurse.” 

Avoiding Ableist Language

Language that is derogatory toward people with disabilities or perpetuates stereotypes of weakness is considered ableist, implicitly defining a person by their disability status. A best practice here is to use people-first language that prioritizes the person over their disability or chronic condition. For example, rather than using the term “disabled person” or “handicapped person,” putting the disability before the individual, refer to them as a person with a disability. In place of the term “addict” to describe someone who struggles with addiction, describe them as “a person with a substance use disorder.”

When a person chooses to reclaim their disability, diagnosis or chronic condition as a part of their identity or expression of pride, another viable approach is to use identity-first language to acknowledge this. An example of this would be “deaf person” rather than “person with deafness” or “hearing impaired.”

Recognizing the Impact of Mental Health Language

Your coworker may be feeling a bit grouchy today, but it doesn’t mean they are “bipolar.” Derogatory terms that stem from the context of mental health should never be used to mock someone, make jokes or offend. Using terms like “bipolar,” “PTSD” or “OCD” to describe everyday behaviors trivializes the seriousness of some people’s real, lived experiences with mental disorders.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using Inclusive Language

As you work to implement inclusive language in your organization, keep in mind there is no finite destination. Your effort will always be a work in progress. In your personal journey to use more inclusive language, you will also find yourself making mistakes and ultimately learning from them.

In fact, failing to educate oneself about inclusive language is actually one of the common mistakes we’re highlighting here:

  • Using “race-neutral” language: An effective and sustainable inclusive language practice acknowledges multiculturalism and the conflicts related to race, ethnicity and culture, rather than ignoring them. Research indicates that institutional policies that are race-neutral in language may actually have a disproportionate and harmful impact on people of color.

  • Making assumptions about someone's identity: Avoid making assumptions about people, like their gender, abilities, sexual preferences and other identifying characteristics. Instead, the best policy is to treat each person as an individual who may completely contradict your expectations.

  • Ignoring intersectionality: Intersectionality is the way in which cumulative effects of multiple forms of discrimination – racism, sexism and classism – combine, overlap or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups. The term was first coined more than 30 years ago as a concept that analyzed how the oppression of Black women was being overlooked in the eyes of the law. The mistake here is failing to understand how these interlocking identities of race, gender and socioeconomic status matter to people’s experiences, and how societal or workplace systems can affect us differently.

  • Failing to educate oneself about inclusive language: It is vital to understand how words and expressions can unintentionally reinforce biases around gender, sexual orientation, race and more. Failure to develop this understanding and adopt a continuous learning approach to the language of inclusivity could negatively impact an individual’s career development.

How to Implement Inclusive Language in the Workplace

Implementation of an inclusive language policy should reinforce the importance and benefits of using inclusive language, and be guided by principles of openness, understanding and shared experiences.

Training and Education for Employees

By presenting opportunities for employees to learn more about the difficulties members of marginalized communities face, and the benefits to be gained by developing a workforce of employees from diverse backgrounds, employers can create an atmosphere where the use of inclusive language is adopted organically.

Educational resources should include the shared experiences of those who have been personally impacted by harmful stereotypes and biases themselves. 

Creating an Inclusive Language Policy

Begin developing an inclusive language policy by auditing and analyzing the language used in organization-wide communications.

A good place to start is with the language being used to promote job openings. Job descriptions should be free of gendered pronouns or language, and use plain language that doesn’t make assumptions about candidates’ gender, race, sexual preference or disability status.

Take another look at the education requirements and experience level for all positions. By being too rigid in this area, employers can lose out on candidates with high potential and who may come from more diverse backgrounds.  

Encouraging Feedback and Open Communication

Adopting a “we’re all in this together” mindset is important to encourage positive reinforcement. For an inclusive language policy to be effective, business leaders must lead by example, demonstrating an openness to learning and then sharing what they’ve learned with the people they lead.

Rather than being intimidated or feeling threatened by this initiative, employees should be encouraged to participate in this “new normal,” unafraid of making mistakes, learning from them and sharing their experiences with colleagues.

How DeVryWorks Can Help Advance Your DEI Initiatives

DeVryWorks, the workforce solutions partner of DeVry University, can strengthen your diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives with customized learning pathways to upskill and reskill team members, solving for current and predicted talent gaps. We can also help you develop a refined tuition benefits program that aligns with your DEI policies and increases employee engagement and retention.

Contact us today to discover what DeVryWorks can do for your organization.

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