Using only language isn’t just about insulting others; research has made its harmful effects clear. To create a truly inclusive culture, it’s critical to look closely at how people in all areas of your business use language. The authors present four ways you as a leader can encourage the use of inclusive language in your company. First, slow down your recruiters and hiring managers and pay attention to the language they use when drafting jobs, with a view to removing non-neutral terms. Second, make a list of words that are prohibited in product development. Third, couple internal business guidance with practical, accessible tips that can be put into action immediately (e.g., a comprehensive vocabulary reference guide) with simple tools, such as the “language included” feature available in Microsoft Office, which suggests neutral alternatives to biased language. in professional communication. Finally, choose ambassadors who are highly visible in the company to support your inclusive language initiatives.
We have all become increasingly aware of the importance of language in creating inclusive and equitable work cultures. Words are important, and many words and expressions from the past seem outdated and even shocking today. Yet today’s professional vocabulary is still littered with exclusive terms. To create a truly inclusive culture, it’s critical to look closely at how people in all areas of your business use language.
Many groups are harmed by the mere use of language. For example, gender-based terms that favor male involvement and symbolize male dominance are common in the workplace, despite the availability of gender-neutral alternatives. Keep in mind that a board chairman is usually referred to as chairman when ‘chairman’ would suffice, and people often make unnecessary distinctions such as ‘female boss’ rather than just ‘manager’ or ‘boss’.
Our language can also exclude many other groups of workers. Until recently, few would have raised an eyebrow when “blacklisted” was used to describe rejection, while “whitelisted” was used to describe approval. In a world where people are described as black or white based on their skin color, a consistent negative association with the word “black” can act as a subconscious signal that puts black colleagues at a disadvantage. People with mental health problems also face an uphill battle in addressing the negative connotations of misused descriptors such as “mental,” “crazy,” “OCD,” and “psycho” in casual conversation. And colleagues who aren’t “digital natives” are left to assume they’re not tech-savvy and use language that discredits their technological adaptability, such as “dino,” “senior moment,” and “silver surfer.”
Using only language isn’t just about insulting others; research has made its harmful effects clear. For example, highly gendered language reinforces inaccurate assumptions about the roles that men and women should occupy – and can successfully achieve – in the workplace. A recent study revealed a clear link between how the use of gender-based language reinforces narratives around gender roles, going a step further by suggesting that the choice to use these specific words may be unconsciously driven by harmful stereotypes. And non-binary colleagues struggle to be accepted in workplaces that haven’t adopted pronouns and other vocabulary that confirm their identities.
Here are four ways you as a leader can encourage the use of inclusive language in your business.
View vacancies to guarantee language neutrality.
Job postings often contain non-neutral language that attracts certain types of applicants and repels others. For example, it has been shown that just using the word “competitive” prevents more women than men from applying for a job, and gender bias can also contribute to the underrepresentation of women in STEM. Terms like “hacker” or “ninja” in job postings are not only difficult to identify for many people, they are also redundant because neutral and more widely understood alternatives (“programmer”, “software engineer”, “developer”, etc. . ) are available. Furthermore, language related to age stereotypes in job postings, such as “must be a digital native language”, has been associated with discriminatory practices.
Make sure your recruiters and hiring managers slow down and pay attention to the language they use when drafting job openings, with a view to removing non-neutral terms. To aid in this assessment process, new artificial intelligence products are becoming available and Google is already helping their everyday users with gender neutral language by suggesting alternatives to gendered terms.
Make a list of words that are prohibited in product development.
The language used in product branding ultimately leads to customers through the many touchpoints, from distribution to marketing to purchasing. Global companies are in a privileged position to shape society, both positively and negatively, through the language they use in product development. For example, consider the 1992 Barbie doll Teen Talk, which was widely criticized for its recorded message, “Math class is hard!”, and how it was considered a deterrent to young girls pursuing STEM.
To do this, keep an evolving list of banned words for the product development cycle, including terms like “elderly,” “man-hours,” “bugger,” or “crazy,” which also takes into account slogans (such as “math is cool!”) that are useless. Reinforce stereotypes.Then create checkpoints in the product cycle to regularly screen for those terms and phrases to catch them early.We are optimistic that over time these lists will ensure that only language use no longer has a place in the product development of large companies.
Create a guide to inclusive language.
Adapting to the use of inclusive language offers us an opportunity to grow and become better communicators† It also helps leaders and employees become better allies. Pair internal business guidance with practical, accessible tips that can be put into action immediately (for example, a comprehensive vocabulary reference guide) with simple tools, such as the “language included” feature available in Microsoft Office, which suggests neutral alternatives to biased language used in professional communication. These guides and tools should coexist, be easily accessible to employees, and enable input and co-creation across the organization.
Implementing such guidelines and tools will bring great benefits to leaders. First, it means that employees can enjoy the freedom to spend their workday in a culture that uses respectful language. This reduces the cognitive load and decreases the psychological load, which is known to improve performance. Second, since non-inclusive language can keep marginalized populations from a company, investing in compiling such a guide is an investment in attracting and retaining diverse talent.
Take advantage of the messenger effect.
Choose ambassadors who are highly visible in the company to support your inclusive language initiatives. These can be colleagues who are at the top of the organization or who have sufficient soft power. If a visible person takes an action, others are more likely to follow suit.
Let these ambassadors keep it simple and focus on small but powerful changes. For example, ask them to normalize the habit of meeting participants to introduce themselves by their name, job title, and pronouns. Similarly, coach them on how to spot language abuse when they see it. Gentle correction, whether private or in the moment, is a powerful way to give feedback. For example, try saying, “Hi John, I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but I’d rather we say ‘Well done, everyone’ instead of ‘Well done, guys.'”
When building your company’s inclusive language plans, keep in mind that best practices are constantly changing. An approach inspired and informed by people at all levels of the organization can help you stay on top of the latest language evolutions and preferences. It will also put you on the right track to move forward and lead in this important movement.
This post How to make your organization’s language more inclusive was original published at “https://hbr.org/2022/03/how-to-make-your-organizations-language-more-inclusive”