How we speak and the words we use can be integral to helping others in the workplace feel included — and, conversely, can unintentionally make them feel excluded. Inclusive language in the workplace is extremely powerful. It can help create a sense of belonging for everyone regardless of their age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, ability or background. It can ensure that everyone feels valued, respected and part of the team.
Inclusive language at work is critical for numerous reasons. First, inclusion at work increases employee loyalty and longevity: 69 per cent of employees working at organisations that they believe are diverse intend to remain there for at least five years. Second, diversity and inclusion at work enhance company performance. Research shows that diverse organisations report 43 per cent higher profits than the average organisation.
Understanding what inclusive language is, its benefits and how to use and implement it in the workplace is essential for human resource (HR) managers and employees alike.
What is Inclusive Language?
Inclusive language avoids biases, words, slang or other expressions that may directly reference, or imply, discrimination against certain groups of people based on their race or ethnicity, disability status, sexual or gender identity, religion, socioeconomic level, or any other characteristic. Inclusive language acknowledges diversity, conveys respect and is sensitive to differences. It promotes equal opportunities and allows those using it to resonate with their audience by expressing themselves impartially.
Exclusive language does the opposite and can hurt and alienate people, making them feel rejected and like they are not part of a group or team.
Why is Inclusive Language Important?
Inclusive language is important because how we speak to each other influences how we treat each other, and how employees treat each other at work is a critical factor in building a positive and inclusive workplace culture.
Inclusive language is important for the following reasons:
- Language that is not inclusive leads to harmful stereotypes.
- Non-inclusive language affects people who witness it, as well as its targets.
- When used in interviews, non-inclusive language makes applicants feel alienated from certain positions. They may find these jobs less attractive and feel less motivated to apply for them. They may also have lower confidence in their abilities, even if they are well qualified for the position.
- Non-inclusive language impedes the ability of excluded groups of people in the workplace, meaning they may be less likely to advance.
- Non-inclusive language can also impede certain people from ascending to leadership roles, regardless of their capability.
- Consistent non-inclusive language can be just as harmful as experiences like harassment.
- Language that is not inclusive can lead to large groups of employees feeling hostile and discriminated against.
What we say at work — as well as what we do not say — plays a fundamental role in workplace culture.
Why is Using Inclusive Language at Work Important?
Using inclusive language at work can benefit everyone, as it is instrumental in creating a sense of belonging at work. A sense of belonging creates a positive work culture, and that, combined with diversity, leads to a more innovative and better-performing workplace.
The benefits of inclusive language can be found in the following resources:
- Diverse Minds, ‘7 Ways Inclusive Language Creates Belonging at Work’: This article shows that inclusive language creates a safe space for people to talk about disability and mental illness. When employees feel comfortable talking about these things, there is an increased likelihood that they will create programs and support mechanisms for people with disabilities or people with mental or other illnesses.
- Victorian Government, LGBTIQ+ Inclusive Language Guide: This guide demonstrates that inclusive language helps everyone to feel comfortable being themselves. Inclusive language helps foster inclusion of people of different gender identities, including LGBTIQ+ individuals, as staff feel comfortable using different pronouns, and less stigma is associated with different identities.
- Achievers, ‘Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace: Benefits and Challenges’: This article shows how inclusive language encourages employees to work harder. When employees feel a sense of belonging at work and feel positively connected to it, they are more likely to work harder and produce higher quality work.
- Gartner, How HCM Technologies Can Scale Inclusion in the Workplace: This research demonstrates that inclusive language helps foster better overall performance and, by extension, company revenue. The research reveals that teams that were inclusive and diverse performed up to 30 per cent better than their non-inclusive counterparts.
Examples of Exclusive Language and Inclusive Language
Inclusive language in the workplace is important for numerous reasons. However, most employees do not use exclusive language on purpose, which makes using inclusive language even more challenging. Many of the biases implicit in exclusive language are subtle and non-deliberate.
To understand inclusive language, it is important to understand examples of exclusive language.
Examples of Exclusive Language
Exclusive language is any language that can imply discrimination against a person based on characteristics such as their gender identity, race, age or other aspects of their identity.
According to the ECU Inclusive Language Guide, examples of exclusive language are as follows:
- Referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by slang terms or disrespecting their cultural beliefs, for example, by referring to the Dreamtime as a myth.
- Using unnecessary gender references, for example, saying ‘mother’s facilities’.
- Putting undue emphasis on someone’s race.
- Using emotive language to refer to people with disabilities, for example, saying they suffer from a disability.
- Referencing sexuality in a derogatory way.
- Using stereotypes, for example, that all old men are grumpy or that all millennials are job-hoppers.
Examples of Inclusive Language
Inclusive language is the opposite of exclusive language in that it encourages the inclusion of people from all walks of life, no matter who they are.
According to the ECU Inclusive Language Guide, examples of inclusive language are as follows:
- Using the culturally appropriate and correct language when referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
- Using gendered language only when necessary, and always asking for preferred pronouns and using them.
- Not referencing age unless absolutely necessary.
- Changing the focus from disability to accessibility.
- Avoiding stereotypes, for example, instead of saying, “A father is babysitting his children,” say, “A parent is caring for their child”.
How to Incorporate Inclusive Language at Work
Given the benefits of inclusive language at work, HR managers, leaders and employees must all do what they can to ensure that it is put into action at work.
Here is how HR managers, leaders and employees can make inclusive language in the workplace a reality:
HR Managers and Leaders
When encouraging inclusive language at work, HR managers and leaders play a pivotal role in establishing programs and leading by example in how they speak and in the culture they create.
Using inclusive language needs to begin at the top of an organisation. Senior executives in every business must both set a good example with their own use of inclusive language and foster an environment where others feel comfortable doing the same. Senior leaders should outline initiatives that encourage and reward the use of inclusive language.
Middle-level managers are also responsible for promoting inclusive language in the workplace. Middle managers can directly lead conversations about the use of inclusive language on a day-to-day basis, including pointing out when employees inadvertently fail to use it. They can also foster team bonding between different people to help encourage inclusion.
Finally, HR has an important role to play in encouraging the use of inclusive language. HR can organise training for employees on what inclusive language is and also create programs that reward the use of inclusive language, including policies and procedures for using it and how it should be used.
Employees are the most essential resource for any business, and their contribution to culture is invaluable. Sometimes, just one person doing the right thing can positively impact others. For this reason, employees must make their own efforts to use inclusive language at all times.
For employees, it is important to remember that exclusive language is often unintentional. For that reason, employees should first endeavour to educate themselves on what inclusive language is and what assumptions might be leading them to use certain language.
After educating themselves, employees should simply practise and practise. Employees should make their intention to use inclusive language known and encourage others to tell them if they don’t use the language they intended. Employees, just as much as executives, can be leaders in using inclusive language and creating an inclusive workplace environment.
Inclusive Language Leads to Better, More Productive and Profitable Workplaces
Making people feel welcome and included is a critical element of inclusive language in the workplace. However, it also helps create a workplace culture where people from all backgrounds and all ages, genders, races, religions and abilities can be productive without discrimination and ultimately thrive.
When employees thrive, organisations are more productive and more profitable.
Want to learn how to make organisations more inclusive and champion positive workplace cultures? Gain the skills you need with our Master of Human Resource Management.