Supporting inclusion in the workplace comes in many different forms, from Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) dedicated to representing and championing a variety of groups and interests, to accessible facilities that accommodate the needs of a diverse workforce and meal options to suit a range of diets. There are also the broader inclusion best practices, such as inclusive hiring and promotion. 

But a key aspect of creating any successfully inclusive environment is the language used – language that encompasses and empowers every employee. As the LSA defines it, inclusive language, “acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities”, where people think about the impact their words and phrases have on others and consciously avoid terms, phrases, or expressions that could be biased against any group of people. 

At its core, inclusive language recognises that words matter when it comes to communicating in a way that is respectful. It doesn’t make assumptions about people and avoids default phrases that could make a person feel alienated or unwelcome. By actively choosing to use inclusive language – such as gender-neutral terms – we can create workplaces and environments where everyone feels able, and psychologically safe to be their true self.  

Here are some steps to making language in the workplace more inclusive in 2023. 

  1. Swap exclusionary phrases for inclusive phrases. There are many phrases commonly used in our everyday parlance that can be perceived as exclusionary or even offensive, whether used intentionally or not. For example, everyday language has an implicit bias towards male and female genders and heterosexuality – automatically dismissing those who identify as another gender or who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. Instead, use gender neutral language – e.g., ’they’ instead of ‘he/she’, ‘Chairperson’ or ‘chair’ rather than ‘Chairman’, or ‘partner’ instead of ‘husband/wife’ – removing assumptions and default exclusionary phrases that alienate employees. Even something as simple as normalising sharing pronouns on email signatures or Zoom displays can be really effective at creating a non-intrusive, inclusive environment.  
  1. Replace stereotypes and culturally appropriative phrases. The phrase ‘divide and conquer’ might appear harmless and in common use in colloquial conversation, but like many everyday idioms and phrases, it carries with it a negative historical context. Common turns of phrases, even seemingly innocuous phrases like ‘Tribe’ or ‘Blacklist and whitelist’ can be harmful, appropriative, and inconsiderate, so actively try to find alternatives. ‘Group, crew, community, or circle’ for example, to replace Tribe, which was popularised as a result of colonialism, or ‘Blocklist and allowlist’ which removes the problematic and racist associations of ‘black’ as ‘bad’ and ‘white’ as ‘good’. If you’re not sure whether a phrase is inappropriate, speaking plainly, especially in large and diverse groups is always a good rule of thumb.  
  2. Support racial identity and equality. Race and ethnicity are key parts of people’s identities, so misidentifying can be hurtful and invalidating. Avoid making assumptions and generalising people into one racial group, like Asian or African, and take the time to understand and learn which race, ethnicity or national origin employees identify as. 
  3. Be conscious of ableist language. Ableist language suggests that disability is abnormal, perpetuates stereotypes of weakness, is derogatory toward people with disabilities and can implicitly define a person by their disability status. There are two ways to combat this ableist language. First, try using people-first language – this prioritises the person over the disability, diagnosis, or chronic condition. So, someone who is ‘wheelchair bound’ should be referred to as ‘a person who uses a wheelchair or wheelchair user’ instead. Second, identity-first language is used when an individual chooses to reclaim a disability, diagnosis, or chronic condition as a part of their identity or expression of cultural pride – a ‘person with deafness’ or someone who is ‘hearing impaired’, for example, reclaims the term ‘deaf person’. Everyone’s preferences will be different, so take the time to check which usage their prefer, and don’t assume a default.  

Using recognition to build an inclusive culture 

An employee recognition programme is one of the most effective ways to boost employee engagement, belonging and inclusivity. Workhuman and Gallup’s research found that high-quality recognition improves feelings of belonging for all employees, and for black employees, when recognition needs are fulfilled, it results in five times the impact on belonging.  

Language matters in recognition messages too. Workhuman IQ research indicated that some form of unconscious bias can be found in 20-30% of all written communications. This could be something as writing to a female colleague “You’re an amazing woman, I can’t believe you did it!”, implying that she was less likely to achieve the goal because of her gender. 

Even with the best intentions, it can be easier to get it wrong than you might think. This is where recognition micro-coaching comes in. Micro-coaching tools like Workhuman’s Inclusion Advisor, work by sitting as an additional layer on top of recognition platforms, and use AI and Natural Language Processing to make suggestions of how recognition messages can be improved, in real time. By detecting non-inclusive language and other forms of bias, employees are able to learn on their own time, and in a safe, private space about how to use more inclusive, non-biased language. Merck, for example, found that 74% of its employees chose to change their recognition message after Inclusion Advisor flagged potentially biased language. 

Going in to 2023, it’s important that we all take the time to ensure the language we use is respectful and inclusive of all. We are all unique humans, and to ensure a successfully diverse, inclusive working environment, we must recognise and appreciate everyone’s individuality.