Importance of using inclusive language in the workplace

As many businesses strive to improve or implement programs around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), conversations around inclusive language are paramount. 

Inclusive language constitutes any words or phrases that could apply to everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or other aspect of a person’s identity. In simpler terms, it’s about choosing your words carefully to avoid excluding or alienating anyone. A very simple, common example of this is referring to the December holiday period as “the holidays” instead of calling out just a single celebration like Christmas. (We share more examples later in this article.) 

So, why exactly is using inclusive language in the workplace so important, and how should you go about it?

Why Using Inclusive Language at Work Matters 

Ensuring the language you are using at work is inclusive directly contributes to the psychological safety of your coworkers, and everyone else you interact with. Simply put, this means that it ensures everyone’s comfort, which directly contributes to a person’s mental health and even work performance. 

If you make an effort to avoid using language that could alienate or even hurt one of your coworkers or employees, you are much more likely to create an environment in which they can thrive. 

Inclusive language is especially important in the workplace because you presumably do not know everything about each and every one of your coworkers or employees. They very well could keep some aspects of their personal lives private, especially if they’ve had negative experiences with sharing these aspects of themselves in the past. 

This is another reason creating a culture in which everyone can bring their full selves to work without any fear or hesitation is so important. If people feel they are safer when they hide a part of themselves, this not only harms their mental health (which is, of course, reason enough to avoid this), but also contributes negatively to employee turnover and their productivity.

How to Approach Inclusive Language

Language is not static; it is an ever-changing aspect of our lives, which means that we are always learning and adding to our vocabulary. Words or phrases you’ve used for a very long time could have negative connotations you aren’t even aware of. It may take some effort to weed these out of your conversations, but it will be well worth it.

It’s important to approach this with an open mind and willingness to learn. Listen to those who may point out language that is not inclusive, and encourage those around you to do so if they choose. Also remember that it is not other people’s responsibility to teach you about these things, and read up on common examples. 

For example, a report from Deloitte identifies “peanut gallery,” “divide and conquer,” and, “grandfathered in,” as phrases that have their origins in racism and colonialism. This is information readily available to those on the internet who wish to find it and will help you to eliminate such phrases from your vocabulary.

That being said, this is not something you will likely become an expert in overnight. Again, be open to correction and do not make a big deal of your mistakes. It is enough to simply acknowledge smaller slips, apologize, and move on. Bear in mind that intentions do matter on this journey, even though the results and change are more important. 

Examples of Inclusive Language to Add to Your Vocabulary

Aside from the above examples, here are some examples to bear in mind as you increase your efforts to use inclusive language in the workplace and beyond:

  • They vs. He or She: Using the pronoun “they” when you are unsure of someone’s gender is preferred over using the phrase, “he or she.” Not only is it more concise, but it is also more inclusive of the many genders that exist. It was also determined to be grammatically correct, even when referring to a single person . 
  • Partner or Spouse: It is best to not assume the gender of someone’s partner, or that they even have one. Unless your coworker or employee identifies or names this person in their life, use phrases like, “If you have a partner or spouse,” to ensure that you’re conveying your meaning without assuming anything about their personal life.
  • Parental Leave vs. Maternity/Paternity: Not all parents fall under the labels of either “mother” or “father,” so using “parents” or “parental leave” will ensure that your language includes all of these people. Your organization very well may have different leave policies for new parents based on their gender. If so, explore why exactly that is and see if there is room for improvement. 
  • BIPOC: This acronym (pronounced bye-pock) refers to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This is mainly used to show that not all People of Color face the same or equivalent hurdles. The issues Indigenous people face, for example, are often glossed over or not given proper acknowledgement. Using this term helps to acknowledge individuality among these identities and cultures while also having overarching conversations about race.
  • AAPI: Another acronym that is prevalent in conversations about race, this stands for Asian American and Pacific Islanders. This is specifically used in the United States. 
  • People-first Language: Many people (though not all) do not want to be first identified with their disability. For example, using “person with sight loss” over “blind person” may be preferable, based on the individual. On the other hand, someone with Autism may prefer to be directly called, “Autistic,” as they feel this is a very important part of their identity. This is a very personal thing for many, and you can feel free to ask in a respectful manner. However, if you’re unsure and referring to a group of individuals, it is preferable to use people-first language. 

These are just a few of the many things to bear in mind when using inclusive language in the workplace. We would encourage you to continue researching this topic and have open conversations about it both at work and in your personal lives (with the consent of those you are conversing with, of course.)

To learn more about the specific efforts we are making as an organization, please refer to our Michael Page DEI Hub (US).

Join over 80,000 readers!
Receive free advice to help give you a competitive edge in your career.