As Gen Z employees enter the workforce, they’re bringing good news with them: our labor pool is more diverse than it’s ever been.
And for these younger generations, diversity goes well beyond race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. The national conversation now centers around intersectionality, recognizing that our employees’ identities are made up of an endless combination of factors like culture, age, disability, socioeconomic status, appearance, and more.
But while the workforce is shifting, few employers have prepared to meet their diverse range of employees where they are. In fact, 79% of organizations think building a more inclusive culture is important to their organization’s success, but only 17% have inclusion initiatives in place to foster a sense of belonging.
If we’re going to transform our organizations to embrace the diverse backgrounds of all of our employees, we need to start with how we communicate. Adopting inclusive language in the workplace is the first step to recognizing the unique identities that exist within our companies, and shows our employees that we see and respect them for exactly who they are.
But as language continues to evolve and political correctness takes a front seat in national conversations, it can be hard to keep up with the right things to say. Which acronyms are the most up-to-date? Which common phrases have been exposed for their racist origins?
If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, that’s okay — you’re not alone. And your concern means you’re already conscious about making employees feel more included. But we can’t stop there. Let’s educate ourselves together, and put our words to action to make sure the language our companies use is as inclusive as possible.
What is inclusive language?
Inclusive language addresses everyone, not just certain groups, so that communication is more effective. It’s language that conveys respect to people of all backgrounds, and proactively recognizes them for who they are. It makes clear that everyone’s perspectives are valued and that equal opportunities are available to everyone.
Working towards inclusive language in the workplace is an acknowledgement that the way we speak reflects the society we live in. Many of the common words and phrases we’ve historically used in the United States are caused by power imbalances and outdated expectations. For example, we now understand that seemingly harmless words like “fireman” or “policeman” are exclusionary to other genders, or phrases like “bottom of the totem pole” appropriate indigenous cultures.
So, an effort to use more inclusive language is more than just being polite or using better words. It’s an attempt to correct the larger misrepresentation issues and institutional discrimination that have been a part of our society for too long, and use language that better reflects a more inclusive and equitable world.
What are some examples of inclusive language?
In general, inclusive language is nondiscriminatory. It avoids terms that exclude certain groups, infer a gender binary, or are based in offensive historical roots.
Here are just a few examples of how you might make common words and phrases more inclusive:
Ladies and gentlemen
Husband or wife
Mom and dad
Everyone or folks
Spouse or partner
BIPOC, people of color
Hard to believe, not acceptable
Parental leave or gestational leave
Parent or guardian
Why is inclusive language in the workplace important?
The words we choose are powerful. Inclusive language makes everyone, particularly those who we’ve historically marginalized, feel more comfortable and affirmed. It reduces the harm of stereotypes and ensures everyone feels a part of the conversation. As a result, employees trust that they can be their authentic selves at work. They also feel more encouraged to bring their unique perspectives and ideas to the table, enriching the workplace.
Employees who feel included are more likely to be engaged and productive. In turn, this has substantial benefits for the organization as a whole. Employees are more likely to have higher morale and stay with the organization. More diverse and inclusive organizations are more innovative. They also make better business decisions and are more likely to outperform their profitability projections.
How can employers create a culture of inclusivity and encourage employees to use inclusive language?
Choosing inclusive language is an active (not passive) process. It requires setting guidelines, offering trainings, and auditing company communications to ensure language is as inclusive as possible. So as you’re starting this process, it’s important to put a complete strategy together to make sure everyone who works at your company understands and implements inclusive language into their day-to-day.
Here are eight steps to help you reinforce the importance of inclusive language with your workforce:
- Always put the individual first. Remember that the individual is more important than their descriptor. So, don’t refer to a person by their characteristics first, such as “a disabled worker” or “a female engineer.” Instead, only mention a person’s particular characteristic when it’s relevant to the discussion. And then, put the person first by saying “a worker who is disabled” or “a woman in the engineering department.”
- Don’t require people to put themselves in a box. Some forms and surveys require respondents to check the box for their gender, race, ethnicity, and the like. Instead, allow respondents to self-identify (or not identify, if they prefer). This way, you’ll also learn what language they prefer to use to describe themselves.
- Conduct unconscious bias trainings. The first step in driving employees towards more inclusive language is to educate them on how language can be exclusionary in the first place, and where they might unknowingly be contributing to the problem. Bring in an expert to run Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and unconscious bias trainings, so that your organization can have meaningful, constructive conversations about how your collective language can improve (without pointing any fingers).
- Encourage employees to share their pronouns. Sharing pronouns is a common practice for employers who are looking to offer a more welcoming workspace for non-binary, trans and genderqueer employees. Encourage employees to add their pronouns to their email signatures, include them during meeting introductions, and more so that you can correctly address your co-workers and team members. Use gender-neutral pronouns when you’re not sure of someone’s gender, no matter how they look.
- Audit your marketing and hiring materials. Even if you don’t mean to, your company’s marketing and hiring materials might include outdated language, fail to address certain demographics’ needs, or exclude certain groups. Conduct an audit to make sure your marketing language is as inclusive as possible, and that imagery reflects a broad range of people. Here at Jellyvision, we’ve even created a “off limits” list of words and phrases that aren’t appropriate to include in ALEX or in any marketing assets.
- Take a look at your office space. Is your company headquarters as inclusive as it could be? Are bathrooms marked “men and women,” or “gender-neutral?” Is there a designated space for new parents to breastfeed? Are there clear elevators and ramps marked for folks with disabilities? Are your snacks labeled for employees with food allergies? Think about how folks from different backgrounds would experience your office space, and make adjustments as needed.
- Learn from the experts: your employees. When in doubt, ask your employees what makes them feel accepted and affirmed at work. When anyone mentions a phrase that they find offensive or exclusive, pay attention and learn. Seek out guidance from your employee resource groups when you’re deciding what language to include in company communications, and ask for feedback about where your brand messaging could be more inclusive. Take regular surveys and review the results to find out how engaged and comfortable your employees are at work. At the end of the day, even your best efforts to use inclusive language will fall flat if the words you choose don’t resonate with your workforce.
- Understand that inclusive language is always evolving. Remember: even if your company messaging is up-to-date and considered politically correct today, that doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow. As a society, we’re always learning and growing, and what was once considered appropriate may no longer be okay. If a word or phrase is new to you or if it feels awkward, notice that your resistance may have more to do with you than the new language. Embrace the change.