The Power of Inclusive Language in the Workplace

Inclusive language refers to a way of speaking that aims to keep conversations more general and welcoming to a wider audience. Using gender-neutral, gender-confirming, or anti-ableist language enables speakers and audiences alike to expand their perspectives and include each other in workplace processes.

The point of inclusive language is to be mindful of how we speak to and about other people to create a supportive environment among our colleagues.

At times, the language used in professional settings can be limiting, even when the speaker doesn’t intend to exclude others. Using inclusive language stands to minimize instances in which potentially offensive phrases are used (with or without intent).

Why Is Inclusive Language Important?

The professional landscape is incredibly diverse, and because of this, leaders and employees alike need to be willing and able to ensure that every member of their team feels that they’re an equal part of the workforce. This way, organizations can harness all the strengths and benefits of having a diverse working environment. Making efforts to include everyone encourages employees to share different ideas and perspectives that promote productivity and progress.

Examples of Exclusive Language

Let’s say a woman in Department A is married to another woman. Even if her colleagues don’t know that detail of her life, being asked questions about her “husband” might become off-putting. Instead, if her colleagues asked her about her spouse, she’d probably feel more welcome to talk about her wife.

In another situation, a person working in Department B is managing the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. One of his colleagues is very neat, punctual, and organized, and he overhears another team member stating that this colleague is “so OCD, and it’s annoying.” Even if the neat employee doesn’t have any sort of health condition, the statement made portrays OCD in a negative light. The team member could have just mentioned that the colleague maintained a strict routine and it would have illustrated the same point without being offensive.

Promoting Inclusive Language

Maintaining the use of inclusive language in an office setting may take some work, but it’s a very achievable goal. While there will be times in which an individual makes a mistake, continuous practice will eventually make inclusive language come naturally.

To work towards inclusive language in your own workplace environment, follow these guidelines:

  • Use people-first language – unless the individual in question has provided you with preferred terms. For example, say “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people.”
  • Do not make assumptions about a colleague’s personal life, identity, or background. For example, asking about an individual’s spouse or partner is a better option than asking about their husband or wife until you know more about the person.
  • Avoid words and phrases with negative connotations and origins. For example, the word, “crazy” implies a negative connotation about people managing mental disorders. Many phrases and idioms have negative origins and are rooted in stereotypes as well. For example –the common phrase, “grandfathered in” originates from racially biased policies.
  • Avoid “victim” language. Language such as, “she suffers from” or “confined to a wheelchair” implies that a person is a victim of their circumstance and can come off as condescending.
  • Be aware of microaggressions. Consider if what you want to say is something you would say to anyone despite race, gender, ability, or orientation. For example, questions like “where are you from?” are typically only directed at non-white peers and therefore are discriminatory.
  • Speak broadly when you can. When you’re addressing a group, use words like “all” or “everyone” to call their attention, rather than gendered terms like “guys” or “ladies”.
  • If a colleague or manager points out that you’ve said something offensive, listen. Even if you didn’t mean it the way it sounded, listen to the individual’s point of view instead of becoming defensive. Apologize and learn from the interaction. It’s the best step you can take toward self-improvement.

It’s a learning process, but if you make an effort to use more inclusive language at work, you will help create a more collaborative, culturally sensitive environment.