Five top tips for encouraging inclusive language in the workplace

One thing we have all been taught from a young age is that words matter

Five top tips for encouraging inclusive language in the workplace

By Alice MacDonald, a consultant at worldwide diversity and inclusion training consultancy PDT Global

There’s no denying that the topic of inclusive language is a contentious one. Some people say that it’s political correctness gone too far, while others recognize the impact that non-inclusive language can have. Yet something it’s impossible to deny is that the spaces of diversity, inclusion and equality in the workplace are changing fast – and sometimes it can be hard to keep up. 

Have you really wanted to speak about a topic affecting minority groups but stopped and thought:  "Wait, can I say that?" If so, rest assured you are most definitely not alone. However, just because you are afraid of making a mistake doesn’t mean that you should stay silent. Mistakes happen, and we should forgive ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and educate ourselves so that we say the right thing.

One thing we have all been taught from a young age – but that so often gets forgotten – is that words matter. The words we use can represent a culture, and have done since the beginning of time. If you look through history, you can see a direct correlation between slurs being socially acceptable, and strife inequality. The same goes for organizations. If a culture exists where non-inclusive language is either encouraged or not called out, employees from diverse backgrounds will feel its impact.

The first way that non-inclusive language can manifest itself is by microaggressions – small, subtle, but negative statements that an individual may be able to brush off once in a while. But if they happen time and time again, they can be incredibly detrimental to wellbeing, culture, and productivity.

All too often, minority individuals are told they are not a "good fit" for a role. This may seem harmless, but it demonstrates the impact of language perfectly because of what lies behind the words. Are we using the word fit when we actually mean that person will not go for after-work drinks with us? Would we see someone as not a good fit if they cannot drink for religious or cultural reasons? If you ever hear the words "good fit" being used, unpick the connotations behind this and question if any biases are present.

This is just one example of a microaggression, but they are widespread. Time and time again there are examples of black individuals being told with surprise that they are "so articulate". Again, this may sound like a compliment on the surface, but what biases about black people lie beneath this that mean it is surprising that a black person is so articulate?

In 2021, a lot of us are working virtually, and we’re not sure when that will change. You may think that, because you’re not interacting face to face, inclusive language isn’t as important. However, this isn’t the case. In fact, it’s more important than ever. In person, we rely a lot on the facial expressions of others to discover if we have offended someone. However, when we lean on online messaging systems to contact our colleagues, we can’t see this. Therefore, it is key to constantly be educating yourself, and not waiting on the reactions of others to see if the language you are using is appropriate or not.

Here are five key tips when it comes to encouraging inclusive language in the workplace. Use the acronym SPEAK to remember them:

Say something if you hear something non-inclusive

This doesn't mean directly calling people out across a busy office, but pulling someone to one side and exploring the biases that may lie behind what they’re saying can go a long way. If you are from the culturally dominant group, then having these tricky conversations so that your colleagues from an ethnic minority background don’t have to, is a key part of being an ally.

People first principle

If in doubt, put people first – for example, saying "a person with a disability" instead of "a disabled person".

Empathy – for yourself and others

We all make mistakes – it’s part of being human. Forgiving yourself when you make a mistake and leaning into learning opportunities is key. Empathy for others is also important when it comes to inclusion. Ask yourself: ‘"How would I feel if someone spoke about me, or my identity, that way?"

Ask, never assume

Making assumptions about people’s identity and how they would like to be referred to is a pitfall many people fall into when it comes to inclusion. This can come in the form of saying to someone: "You’re a person of color, right?" –  instead of waiting for them to disclose their identity and how they would like to be referred to. People have the right to define their own identity, and only be referred to in ways that feel right to them.

Know the space

The inclusion space is always changing – so you should never stop learning. Don’t hesitate to click on that news article that talks about a specific minority community you know less about, and try to read as many books and listen to as many podcasts on identities that are as different as possible from yours.

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