Updated: Sep 30
What is Inclusive Language?
While many organizations continue to enhance their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts and initiatives, one topic that has flustered some DEI champions is adopting inclusive language throughout their organization.
According to the American Psychological Association, Inclusive language is a form of communication that seeks to center the voices and perspectives of those that have been historically marginalized (oppressed) while avoiding expressions that make an individual feel excluded. In essence, inclusive language are terms used to promote more equity. For instance, using the term “chairman” is exclusionary toward women. A more inclusive term would be “chairperson” as it includes all people regardless of gender.
Why is Inclusive Language Important?
Now that you have a clearer understanding of what inclusive language is, let’s dive into how inclusive language can influence your workplace. Adopting inclusive language can enhance perceptions of inclusion and belongingness, as well as employee well-being among those with marginalized identities. Such research has been found using both experimental and survey methods.
While organizations can expect to reap the benefits of incorporating inclusive language throughout the organization, there are negative consequences of not adopting inclusive language as well. For instance, if you have employees that actively dismiss providing their pronouns, this can lead employees that are not cisgender feel they are working in a non-inclusive (or exclusionary) environment.
Another example includes unintentional behavior, like asking a colleague if they’re going on a date with a member of the opposite sex, although they prefer to date members of the same sex. While unintentional, such language can make the employee feel excluded because of their sexual preference.
Clearly, failing to adopt inclusive language can reduce employees’ sense of inclusion in the workplace. And not having an inclusive climate can be very detrimental as organizations with worse inclusive climates tend to see lower rates of organizational commitment and job satisfaction among their employees. This ultimately leads to an increase in employees’ intention to quit. Losing such employees can be costly, especially when you consider the work lost and the recruitment and onboarding you will have to do to replace your employee. Therefore, organizations should strive toward adopting inclusive language in the workplace.
Challenges to adopting Inclusive Language
You may be wondering, if inclusive language is so important, why has it been so hard for organizations to adopt such language. If it’s so easy to adopt such language, wouldn’t every organization do it? Well, many champions of DEI have struggled with inclusive language because most organizations don’t know where to start or how to keep track of all the appropriate terms and verbiage of inclusive language. Not only are there terms to learn and remember, but there are also terms to avoid, making the process of adopting inclusive language stressful.
Further, language is ever evolving, meaning that an acceptable term today may not be acceptable in the future. To make things even more complicated, an inclusive language term accepted by one person may not be accepted by another person belonging to the same social group. For instance, while there has been great discussion regarding what verbiage to use when discussing disabilities, the term “disability” itself is not universally accepted. Also, there is still some discomfort and confusion with the terms Black and African American. Another example can be seen among those within the Latin community, with some preferring the term Latinx or Latine, while others prefer the traditional forms of Latino and Latina.
Steps to obtain employee approved terminology
1) Remember the "Google Rule"
First, if you experience a moment where you are not sure what term to use, ask yourself “Can I Google this?”
We at Mattingly Solutions call this the “Google Rule,” meaning that if you can find the answer on Google… then find the answer yourself. Don’t be afraid to put in the work for the sake of your colleagues, they will appreciate the effort you put in.
2) Brush Up on Key DEI Terms
Next, it is important for DEI champions to brush up on key differences and terminology. This involves using language that is appropriate for the person, or community, that is being discussed.
For instance, the term African American may not apply to every person of African heritage. However, my grandmother was born in Panama (not Africa). Therefore, she identifies as Panamanian American and black, not African American.
3) Define DEI Terms on Your on Terms
Finally, understand and determine the difference between what is standard societal language, and what language is specific to your organization.
While much of the discussion regarding inclusive language focuses on understanding terms related to inclusion, as well as utilizing person- and identity- first verbiage, the most inclusive language means using terms that an individual prefers to be used. Therefore, it is important not to rely on default terms or phrases as the appropriateness of these terms can change over time and may not be accepted by all members of a given identity.
So, while it may seem safer to resort to broad, overarching terms deemed acceptable by broader society, you’ll enhance your employees’ sense of belonging and inclusion when taking a more targeted approach. Therefore, the best practice organizations should incorporate is engaging with their workforce to develop a glossary on inclusive language for the workplace.
Not sure where to get started? We got you covered...
Considering the problems that organizations tend to face when it comes to adopting inclusive language, you may be wondering what steps your organization needs to take in order to adopt such language. How can you determine what verbiage is appropriate for your specific organization and its employees? The best way to develop inclusive language in your organization is by including them in the conversation regarding the terms and definitions of inclusive language.
That's why, to get you and your organization started, we would like to provide a free inclusive language glossary template, allowing you to build a glossary with the input of your employees based on inclusive terms and definitions we provide. Click the button below to access the template.
Anthony Roberson, M.S. is an IO & DEI consulting assistant at Mattingly Solutions and also a PhD student at the University of Nebraska - Omaha. Learn more about and connect with him here.