May 3, 2022

Everyone, no matter their job or industry, should care about language.

Language is not neutral. Words are a powerful reflection of who we are and what we believe. They can include or exclude, empower or belittle, and both drive progress and resist it.

In our modern digital age, when so much of what is presented to the world is through online platforms and social media, the language an organization uses to communicate is especially critical because it is public and out there for the world to see.

The changing nature of inclusive language.

The consistent use of inclusive language is a critical building block to a truly inclusive and diverse workplace. If the goal is to attract and retain a diverse workforce and create an atmosphere where everyone feels they belong, the language of the workplace should be at the top of every company’s diversity check list.

Keeping current, however, can be a challenge for the modern workplace because language is constantly evolving. Terms and phrases change and a once acceptable term can now be met with shock, stunned silence or worse.

It is important for organizations to accept and embrace this evolution as language becomes more precise, less exclusionary, and more sensitive to people who have historically been marginalized or overlooked. 

What can an organization do?

Everyone should see a place for themselves within an organization, whether they are current employees, job seekers, existing or potential customers, clients, suppliers or service providers.

How an organization is presented in all communications reflects the culture and core values of a business. Two of the most important areas of focus for a business to demonstrate a commitment to diversity are websites and job postings.

Building an inclusive website.

A website is often the first point of contact for a potential client or job candidate, so the content should include diverse and inclusive language and visuals.

A good place for an organization to start is to explicitly state their views on diversity. Well-written mission and diversity statements can show that an organization sees diversity as a valuable asset and not just as a bunch of trendy buzz words or a box to check off.

Examples of statements include, “We’re seeking to create a diverse work culture to reflect the diversity of our global client base” or “Diversity and inclusion are the foundational principles that built our teams and created a workplace where everyone is comfortable to be themselves.”

In addition to language, businesses can show potential customers and job applicants their commitment to diversity in a clear and meaningful way through imagery. The old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is entirely accurate when it comes to creating a diverse website. What a company chooses to represent their business online says a lot about their culture and values. The use of photos and videos of current employees and diverse teams can be a great way for a company to display a commitment to diversity, while the use of stock photos that show a wide range of diverse people can be a way for management to demonstrate a vision for the future.

Attracting talent through inclusive job postings.

It is a competitive market out there and the language in job postings can either be welcoming to diverse applicants or create barriers for attracting, recruiting, and hiring talent. Job postings should use language that encourages job applicants from all backgrounds in order to attract top candidates from the largest pool possible.

  • Ethnic and racial diversity

To avoid racial or ethnic bias, words and phrases should be carefully considered. It may be obvious that specific race or national origin terms should never be used, but more subtle phrases like, “strong English-language skills” might deter qualified, but non-native English speakers.

  • Gender diversity

Similarly, removing gender-specific language can avoid gender bias. Replacing chairman with chairperson might be obvious, but there are more subtle terms that can exclude people. Words like cheerful, agreeable, collaborate or share or on the other side, words like fearless, ambitious, decisive, assertive or driven, can all hint at gender stereotypes.

  • Disabled and age-related diversity

Inclusive job descriptions also help disabled and older workers feel welcome. Mentioning accommodations such as flexible hours or work-from-home policies can appeal to disabled workers. Avoiding language that could discourage qualified disabled job applicants isn’t always obvious. For example, a job that requires movement throughout a workplace shouldn’t say “walking” when there are other ways to move around a workplace.

The challenges of evolving language.

We all know the big ones, the words that are absolutely not acceptable to use.  They should not be uttered in any conversation, not even in a joke or in jest. They have been banished forever from our lexicon – as they should be.

But others are not so clear. An example is the word queer. Historically, the word was only used to describe something strange or odd, but it became a way to demean gay and lesbian people.

Now that word has come full circle. It’s been embraced by the community as the Q in LGBTQ2S+. But it can also still be used in a negative way to insult, depending on the context.

While it can be confusing and challenging to stay up-to-date, staying current with terms that are used to describe groups of people is of particular importance. In the workplace, it should not be about what’s easy. It is about showing respect and using the term that individuals and organizations have chosen for themselves.

A good example would be a law firm doing work in Northern Canada using the term Aboriginal in all website copy. While it’s not technically wrong, the term Indigenous has been widely accepted instead, by both Indigenous groups and the federal government. The law firm was not entirely wrong, but it did look out of touch with its own client base.

It was once acceptable, according to Canadian Press style, which governs the use of language in most Canadian publications, to use words we would never dream of using today. It was once acceptable to use the word handicapped to describe someone with a disability or to use the words policeman or fireman to the exclusion of all women. Similarly, saying a diabetic woman or an autistic child puts condition ahead of humanity, so instead it’s better to say a woman with diabetes or a child with autism.

Staying current with inclusive language.

What are the first steps to a truly inclusive workplace? A good first step is talking to people within the workplace and asking how they would like to be addressed. Don’t assume. What was once common and acceptable may not be in our modern society. No one should have to explain why a term is offensive after the fact. For example, a lot of women don’t want to be referred to as ladies – or even worse, girls – in the workplace, so talk to people and find out.

Further steps to creating an inclusive workplace:

  1. Set up an internal diversity committee. A good starting place is talking to existing employees to make sure people feel included and valued. It is not only about acquiring diverse talent, employers also need to create workplaces where diverse talent will stay and succeed.
  2. Get help from the experts. Organizations like Achēv make it their mission to help companies create diverse and inclusive workplaces.
  3. Hire a professional writer who has knowledge of the evolving nature of inclusive language. 
  4. Conduct research. There are many trusted online resources to look up current terms and inclusive language.  We all have a social responsibility to take our guidance on inclusive language from those who have been marginalized. Groups dedicated to historically marginalized people, including Indigenous groups, Black and Hispanic communities, LGBTQ2S+ organizations and those that assist people with disabilities can be a valuable resource for current terms. Some examples include the Native Women’s Association of Canada, The BlackNorth Initiative, Pride Toronto, Canadian Business SenseAbility, and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

Other online resources:

  • The Government of Canada, the Ontario Government, and international organizations like the United Nations all have online resources and guidelines for inclusive language.
  • Educational institutions have long recognized the importance of inclusivity and diversity. Universities Canada and individual schools such as Queen’s University, York University and the University of Toronto have published guidelines on diversity and inclusion.  
  • Non-profits that provide community support and services to a wide range of diverse clients stay up-to-date on inclusive language. Examples include, Kids Help Phone and Habitat for Humanity Canada.
  • Trusted and established news media have strict guidelines on the use of inclusive language. Examples of newspapers, online news outlets, broadcast news, and radio resources include the CBC, CTV and The Globe and Mail.
  • Online resources like Merriam Webster and Oxford dictionaries stay up to date by including warnings in the definition when a word has historically been used or has evolved to be used in a disparaging context.

The bottom line on inclusive language.

There is a lot to think about when developing a diverse and inclusive workplace. The first step is using inclusive language, in all internal and external communications. While keeping up with changing words and phrases can be challenging, it is important to accept that the evolution of language is an ongoing process and always will be. It is up to each of us to choose words that demonstrate our respect for each person as valued members of a workplace and the community.

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