Five top tips for encouraging inclusive language in the workplace

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Written by Alice MacDonald on 4 May 2021 in Features

Want to be more inclusive in your language? There's an easy acronym for that, says Alice MacDonald.

It’s impossible to deny that the issues of diversity, inclusion and equality in the workplace are changing fast – and sometimes it can be hard to keep up. If you’ve ever found yourself wanting to speak about inclusion but stopped and thought: 'Wait, can I say that?', rest assured you are most definitely not alone.

However, just because you are afraid of making a mistake doesn’t mean that you should stay silent. Mistakes happen, and we should forgive ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to educate ourselves so that we say the right thing.

One thing we have all been taught from a young age – but that so often gets forgotten – is that words matter. The words we use can represent a culture, and have done since the beginning of time. If you look through history, you can see a direct correlation between slurs being socially acceptable, and rife inequality.

The same goes for organisations. If a culture exists where non-inclusive language is either encouraged or not called out, employees from diverse backgrounds will feel its impact.

The first way that non-inclusive language can manifest itself is by microaggressions – small, subtle but negative statements that an individual may be able to brush off once in a while. But, if they happen time and time again, they can be incredibly detrimental to wellbeing, culture and productivity.

Making assumptions about people’s identity and how they would like to be referred to is a pitfall many people fall into when it comes to inclusion

A microaggression can come in the form of asking a person of colour: "But where are you really from?" Asking this question blunders into the intricate topic of race and identity in an insensitive way. This question prioritises your curiosity of how you perceive someone’s identity over their boundaries and how they choose to self-identify.

This is just one example of microaggression – do some research into microaggressions and stereotypes, so that you can spot them and speak up if you do. In the meantime, here are five key tips when it comes to encouraging inclusive language in the workplace – using the acronym SPEAK:

Say something if you hear something non-inclusive

This doesn't mean directly calling people out across a busy office – but pulling someone to one side and exploring the biases that may lie behind what they’re saying can go a long way. If you are from the culturally dominant group, then having these tricky conversations so that your colleagues from an ethnic minority background don’t have to, is a key part of being an ally.

People first principle

If in doubt, put people first – for example, saying 'a person with a disability' instead of 'a disabled person'.

Empathy – for yourself and others

We all make mistakes – it’s part of being human. Forgiving yourself when you make a mistake and leaning into learning opportunities is key. Empathy for others is also important when it comes to inclusion. Ask yourself: 'How would I feel if someone spoke about me, or my identity, that way?'

Ask, never assume

Making assumptions about people’s identity and how they would like to be referred to is a pitfall many people fall into when it comes to inclusion. This can come in the form of saying to someone: 'You’re a person of colour, right?' –  instead of waiting for them to disclose their identity and how they would like to be referred to.

People have the right to define their own identity, and only be referred to in ways that feel right to them.

Know the space

The inclusion space is always changing – so you should never stop learning. Don’t hesitate to click on that news article that talks about a specific minority community you know less about – and try to read as many books and listen to as many podcasts on identities that are as different as possible from yours.


About the author

Alice MacDonald, a consultant at worldwide diversity and inclusion training consultancy PDT Global



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