What is inclusive language? How to use it in the workplace

Inclusive language is crucial to an inclusive workplace and society. Carol Buchanan, our Senior Inclusion and Diversity Consultant, explores what inclusive language is, inclusive language examples and more.

What is inclusive language?

Inclusive language is, quite simply, language that doesn’t exclude particular people or groups. It is when the words used, and the way we use them, cause no harm.

And in a best-case scenario – they show our commitment to inclusion.

The importance of inclusive language

Inclusive language is a hallmark of inclusive cultures. Language is one way that exclusion can be exposed, and by focusing on using inclusive language we can work together to drive greater inclusion.

Yet, many of us are holding ourselves back. We want to be inclusive, but we also want to get it right.

The issue here is that language changes, it evolves, and with the best intentions, you can’t get it right all the time.

What are the benefits of using inclusive language?

For those in marginalised groups, language inclusivity indicates that this is a safe space to be yourself. That inclusion matters here. This conveys, amongst other things:

  • That every voice matters
  • That we are open to discussing different needs
  • That different opinions are valued

A great example of this is using pronouns. For most of us, using pronouns isn’t about ensuring people know which pronouns we use – it’s about highlighting that we are allies to the trans community.

The use of that language signals so much more than simple words. It signals a safe space.

Another recent example is the phonetic pronunciation of names on social platforms like LinkedIn. Someone’s name is part of their identity and making the effort to learn the correct pronunciation shows that you value the person and respect their identity.

Why are we holding ourselves back?

Most of us don’t overtly go out of our way to cause harm or exclude others. Yet, inclusion takes more than the intent not to cause harm.

It takes action – much of which is underpinned by good conversations and growing our understanding.

But when we don’t have the words to express ourselves, we can become stuck. Fear of getting it wrong, exposing our lack of knowledge, or offending someone often results in people just not engaging.

It’s all about getting comfortable with a little discomfort. When we learn new things, we are pushing at the edge of our comfort zone and can feel apprehensive.

This is normal, and in most instances, we feel okay about the discomfort as it’s part of the process. It’s expected.

Something different happens when we feel that same discomfort, but it is related to inclusion, exclusion, and difference. It’s related to aspects of a person’s or group’s identity. And we know there is an often difficult history of exclusion.

There is also an underlying feeling that we should know the words. That we should be able to get it right. And that failure to do so somehow exposes us to be ignorant. Or that we will be judged harshly by others.

I come across this self-limiting challenge regularly working in the inclusion space.

Understanding psychological safety and inclusive language

Psychological safety is becoming a big conversation in organisations. It talks about an environment where people are safe to speak up, constructively challenge, and make mistakes without judgement.

It’s not about doing what you want and having no consequences, it’s about being able to take risks, fail and have that treated as a critical learning opportunity.  

Where we have psychological safety, it’s not so disconcerting to feel you don’t have the answers. You know it’s okay to ask questions, to speak up – and if you get it wrong, someone will help you get it right. You won’t be judged for not being an expert.

When it comes to inclusive language words, none of us get it right all the time. But if we can create safe spaces for people to have the conversation, they can learn through doing. And the doing is the important part of driving more inclusive cultures.

More broadly, to have a team with psychological safety, you should:

  • Invite questions and ideas from everyone in the team. Show that ideas, opinions, and different ways of thinking have value
  • Offer multiple ways to give feedback, so there are options to suit everyone’s style
  • Be as transparent as possible, particularly in times of change
  • Encourage positive and constructive conversations about different views and approaches
  • Create an environment where giving feedback is the norm, and encourages self-awareness

How to create safe spaces for inclusive conversations

There are lots of ways to create safe spaces for inclusive conversations. Below are some of our top tips on how to get started.

Be a role model

Show vulnerability and start the conversation. Highlight that you aren’t an expert, but if we can create a space where we are here to learn, not to judge, we can make progress.

Use conversation starters

An Inclusion Passport is an example of an inclusive conversation starter.

Designed to facilitate conversations between line managers and their people, inclusion passports take the onus off the individual and normalise conversations about how people can be supported to thrive at work.

Create a team charter

Think about how you will work together, and what people need to feel safe.

Have a diversity calendar

Another idea is to create or monitor a diversity calendar where you will take time to learn about different experiences throughout the year and talk about how your team can maximise inclusion for different groups.

How Inclusive Employers can help with inclusive language at work

Members can download our inclusive communications guide. This gives some great advice on how to communicate inclusively both in written form and verbally.

We also offer training packages on inclusive language and inclusive communications. If you’re a member, reach out to your account manager to find out more.  If you’re not yet a member, get in touch today to see how we can help.

Finally, make sure to sign up for our Inclusive Language webinar here.