Language Matters: Create a welcoming work culture with inclusive language

Language Matters: Create a welcoming work culture with inclusive language

It’s “more than just avoiding the use of a few antiquated or offensive terms and phrases…it is about creating cultures where people can feel free to be their full authentic selves,” says the American Psychological Association.

When we use inclusive language, we’re actively creating space for people to be themselves by working to remove the metaphorical box an individual is placed in based on characteristics and identifiers.

Here are some ways to use inclusive language in the workplace.

An individual’s pronouns explain how they would like to be referred to in the third person; examples of common pronouns are he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs. An example may look like this: ‘Alex left her notebook here; she might need it later’, or ‘Someone left their laptop. I hope they come back for it.’

One way to practice this is introducing yourself with your name and pronouns when first meeting someone, this cue may communicate that you are a safe person for gender-diverse individuals. This provides an opening for someone to introduce themselves with their name and pronouns in response. You can also include your pronouns in your email signature as a non-verbal way to communicate to colleagues that you are actively putting into practice the use of inclusive terms.

Gender-neutral language
Along with using gender-neutral pronouns like they/them/theirs, it’s important to be mindful of other gender-neutral terms being used in everyday conversation, such as using “everyone” in place of “ladies” and “gentlemen.” Utilizing gender-inclusive language can help everyone feel seen and valued.

Anti-racist language
Anti-racist language is a practice of intentionally avoiding specific words and phrases that have historical origins in racist ideologies, practices and forms of cultural appropriation.

Reflecting on the following points can help you pay more attention on the language we use:

  • Is the language working metaphorically?
  • If so, what are the implications behind the metaphor? Does it place a positive connotation on whiteness and a negative one on something else (usually blackness)?
  • Does the language imply “otherness” and exclusivity?
  • Can it be substituted for something clearer or more literal? (The answer is often yes.) Think about what the term actually means and describe that.
  • Are there any groups of people who could be harmed by this? Who and how so? Thinking about who is affected deepens your understanding of anti-racism.
  • Does the language make you uncomfortable, even if you can’t quite articulate the reason?

An important note when thinking about anti-racist language is not grouping different racial and ethnic groups. For example, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) is not a replacement term when only speaking about an issue that impacts the Black community.

Many toolkits can be found online in learning how to utilize anti-racist language, with some examples avoiding the use of words like ‘blacklist’ due to the connotation of black being inherently negative, or ‘powwow’ as an example of cultural appropriation. Instead, try using language such as ‘blocked list’ in place of blacklist, or ‘discussion/brainstorm’ for a gathering.

Person-first language
The goal is to include the person, which can look like utilizing person-first language and avoiding referring to individuals solely by an identifier. As an example, historically those without housing have been referred to simply as ‘the homeless’, with no distinction of personhood. This is one of many examples that can inform subconscious bias and inform our opinions regarding people who are unhoused.

Creating a culture of growth, healing and accountability

Working toward a more inclusive culture in the workplace through different efforts such as employer-offered benefits, affinity groups or focusing on using more inclusive language can be uncomfortable in the beginning. A growth-focused culture can encourage individuals to shift away from ‘calling out’ someone and lean into ‘calling in’ to learn and heal together.

Inclusive language is always evolving, and it’s not always easy to keep up, although we should try. It’s important to be prepared to make mistakes and correct those mistakes.

When creating a culture of inclusivity in the workplace, consider the following techniques:

  • Never assume someone different from you is willing to discuss their experience with you. Having someone you are not close with asking for details and explanations of emotionally charged topics is uncomfortable for most people.

    However, curiosity is a great tool for learning. When curious, and after doing your research, it can be useful to approach discussions with a question such as, “I’ve been reading about x topic, I’m wondering if you’d be willing to have a discussion about it with me sometime?” This allows for the other person to exercise agency in saying “yes” or “no,” and shows compassion for their well-being and willingness to learn more about their experiences.
  • Be open to feedback from others regarding language they would like to be used when referring to them. Everyone will say something that causes discomfort or harm to another at some point in their lives, but it’s everyone’s job to promote an environment that allows for growth when it happens. When you make a mistake, hold yourself accountable, apologize and have a conversation on ways that you can be more inclusive. This can help foster relationships of trust and emotional value.

Here are resources and toolkits to different inclusive language guides to help build knowledge, understanding and community around respectful and inclusive language.

  1.’s 70 Inclusive Language Principles
  2. Korn Ferry- The Importance of Inclusion in the Workplace
  3. American Psychological Association’s Language Guidelines
  4. APA Inclusive Language
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