Communication is only one aspect of your organization’s culture and how employees experience it. However, using inclusive language consistently and pervasively sends a strong message that inclusivity is a value of your organization. Your employees will notice, and combined with a supportive environment, you’ll help them feel they can be their authentic selves in the workplace.
This is not about being politically correct. “Put simply, inclusive language is effective language–it is respectful, accurate and relevant to all,” as the Diversity Council Australia says in their Words at Work guide.
Here are three ways to make your employee communications more inclusive.
1. Start with some basic guidelines
Changing long-held habits takes time. Start with some basic guidelines as you communicate with employees. You can always add to your list over time as you learn more:
- Put people first. You can sum up many of the guidelines for more inclusive language by remembering to recognize the individual. For example, avoid generic statements about groups of people (“women are empathetic”) and focus on the person, not the description. Instead of “a blind woman” use “a woman who is blind”.
- Use symmetrical language. If you use “men,” don’t say “girls” instead of “women.” The same goes for titles or forms of address. If one person is “Professor Smith,” don’t refer to someone else by only their first name or omit a title.
- If a detail isn’t necessary, don’t include it. You can be more inclusive and tighten up your writing by including only necessary details. For example, avoid adding gender as a descriptor before a title–saying “female executive,” implies that the default for an executive is a man.
- Use gender neutral/non-binary pronouns. Unless you’re writing about a specific person for whom you know their preferred pronouns, it’s more inclusive to use “they” instead of “he or she,” or “their” instead of “his or her.” There’s a long history of using “they” in the singular and it is widely accepted among the major style guides.
- Use plain language. Using industry/company jargon and colloquial expressions such as “ballpark figure” or “piece of cake” can confuse those who aren’t familiar with them and exclude them from the conversation. In addition, many common expressions have discriminatory origins. By using plain language, you have the highest likelihood of being clearly understood and helping people feel that they belong.
2. Refresh your supporting documents
The language you use in newsletters and emails to employees is important, but you also need to be sure the rest of your documents, systems, and tools are in sync. If an employee clicks through your inclusively-worded email and finds a document containing biased language, the disconnect can be disappointing.
Audit your policies and other documents
Policies, handbooks, and other human resources documents tend to have a long shelf-life. They may last for many years with no need for changes from a technical or compliance perspective. However, they could include outdated language. Now is a great time to take a fresh look and update language based on inclusive principals. When it comes to policies, there may be more to review than language. A good example of this could be your dress code. It may unintentionally discriminate based on gender/gender identity, religion, race, or ability.
Examine your forms
The language on forms is usually minimal or legally required. When it comes to ensuring that forms are inclusive, it’s more about the options you provide and not asking for information you don’t really need.
- Provide inclusive options. Allow employees to choose–or write in–their preferred names and pronouns, list inclusive relationship options (partner, spouse, sibling, child) and forms of address (Mx. for example, or none), and allow “prefer not to answer” for items such as gender and race.
- Confirm that you really need each piece of information you are requesting. For example, on some forms you may not need gender, on others it may be essential. Assess each item, if it’s not needed, take it out.
Update your benefit guides
Most of us moved away from using “husband/wife” to “spouse” or “partner” some time ago. But consider taking the next step by using examples in benefits materials that illustrate different types of families. Do your wellness materials assume everyone can run or go to the gym? Include examples with people of different abilities and health statuses doing what they can to improve their health. Examine your documents for terms such as “grandfathered” (which both sounds gendered and has a racist origin) or “man hours” and replace them with neutral terminology. Refer to parental leave, not maternity and paternity leave.
3. Welcome prospective employees
The wording you use in job postings and descriptions can impact the diversity of your teams. You want your posting to appeal to as wide a group of qualified candidates as possible, but the language you use could unintentionally discourage certain qualified candidates from applying. Instead, you want candidates to picture themselves working at your organization.
- Use gender neutral pronouns and job titles such as “wait staff” instead of “waiter/waitress.”
- Avoid buzz words and trendy terms–many of these can convey a heavily masculine culture. Terms that imply youth can discourage older workers from applying.
- Including corporate or industry jargon can turn away those with the skills and competencies you want who just don’t know the lingo.
- List only competencies and qualifications that are truly required. Specifying a bachelor's degree when an associate degree would be fine, for example, can have a disparate impact on certain groups. Calling for strong English language skills may discourage non-native English speakers from applying. Do you really mean strong communication skills?
- Make sure job applications do not request date of birth, date of graduation, or salary history.
In summary, your employee communications convey more than your key messages–there’s an undercurrent that comes through loud and clear to certain members of your audience that is expressed through the words you choose. Make sure your documents say what you want them to say at both the explicit and implicit levels. While communications are just one part of creating a more inclusive workplace, they can be a powerful tool. You don’t have to be an expert to think differently about the words on the page. We’re on a journey and you can start today by taking a first step.