Changing our language to create workplace inclusion

What language is appropriate to use in the workplace to make all groups feel respected and included?

Kasmin Cooney, founder of training provider firm, RightTrack Learning explains how changing language can foster greater workplace inclusion for underrepresented groups.

Imagine the scenario

A group of three people are chatting following a DEI training session, looking specifically at unconscious bias and conscious inclusion. The three discuss the course, key learning points and then move on to language, including what is and isn’t acceptable.

The small group discuss how things are changing rapidly across all the protected characteristics in relation to language. They comment on how nervous they are in certain situations because they are unclear what to say and what specific terminology they should use.

Each has concerns about offending a colleague or a customer and the consequences that might entail. Each agrees that sometimes it is safer not to talk any more than you must.

Keep it minimal; keep it safe.

Is this scenario fiction or fact?

It’s a fact. I talk to clients every working day about their diversity and inclusion needs. Sometimes they have concerns that negative behaviours are evident amongst their teams or even between customer-facing colleagues and customers. Somewhere in most of these conversations, the use of appropriate language is mentioned.

One CEO called shortly after media reports of the resignation of a high-profile sports director who had used inappropriate language. The CEO was concerned the same could happen in his organisation.

Changing language to foster inclusion, including using inclusive terminology, has never been more important than it is right now. It is not just about using inclusive language within gender-related discussions or in reference to someone’s sexual orientation; we are seeing rapid changes across all the protected characteristics. Change is coming thick and fast, and therein lies the challenge. Even seasoned HR professionals are finding it difficult to keep up with the pace of change.

Changing language to foster workplace inclusion

In my view, most people are genuinely keen to use appropriate language and often, it is ignorance and not keeping up with change that causes embarrassment and sometimes offence. Whilst we need to continue to drive positive change, we also need to remember to be tolerant. Here at RightTrack Learning, we see people are keen to get it right, trying to develop their understanding of what can be a minefield when looking across all the protected characteristics and related language.

Where mistakes are made, we need to support learning and re-education whilst still encouraging people to broaden their understanding and increase the diversity of their networks. Otherwise, we are in danger of further isolating different groups through fear of getting it wrong.

Here is a selection of questions we get asked by clients and programme attendees:

Is it ok to use the word ‘homosexual’?

The word homosexual is likely to offend. It is outdated and very clinical. If you think about it, anti-gay extremists use it to suggest gay people are somehow diseased or have a psychological disorder. So, it is better to use the term gay and not homosexual.

I hear gay people using the term ‘queer’. Is it ok to use it too?

Historically, it was a slur. However, in recent times, the word ‘queer’ has been reclaimed by some gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people as a self-affirming umbrella term. But the word is seen as offensive by many so, it’s better not to use it and use the term gay instead, then no one’s offended.

Should we use the term ‘straight’ when referring to people who are heterosexual?

The issue with the word ‘straight’ is it suggests that gay men and women or lesbians are ‘bent’, so it’s better to use the word heterosexual.

Can I say, ‘opposite sex’?

This question implies there are only two sexes. Using the term ‘other sex’ is much more inclusive.

Is using the term ‘person of colour’ likely to cause offence?

Some Black people use this term themselves. Then, on the other hand, some Black people say we are all people of colour, which is true. There are lots of shades of white, and pink and brown. So, when referring to Black people, it doesn’t create a one size fits all. If you use the term Black, there is less of a chance of offending.

I hear the term ‘BAME’ is not right anymore. Is this true?

The acronym BAME stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, defining all ethnic groups except White ethnic groups. However, of late, there have been objections to using one term which brings all these very different groups together. Each group has its own identities; some people will be fine with this term, but others won’t, so it’s always better to ask.

Is it ok to address all colleagues as ‘guys’?

Using the umbrella and casual term ‘guys’ is not very inclusive. Better to avoid, as it can reinforce perhaps a more male-dominated working environment. Alternatives are folk, team, everyone etc.

I work with someone in a wheelchair. Is it ok to say they’re ‘wheelchair bound’?

‘Wheelchair bound’, or ‘confined to a wheelchair’, suggests the person is literally physically tied to their wheelchair and never gets out of it. Much better to use the term ‘wheelchair user’ or ‘person who uses a wheelchair’, which is more appropriate.

Is it legal to use the term ‘handicapped’? When referring to someone with a disability?

The term ’handicapped’ is very outdated and implies the individual has an inherent inability and is not able to function at all. Much better to say, ‘a person with a disability’.

What do I do if I use the wrong word?

It is better to ask someone if you are not sure rather than use a term that upsets or offends, or even worse, to not converse with everyone on the same level in the first place. It’s much better to ask than to avoid interacting with certain groups. The more we interact with people who are not like us, the easier it will become, and we can all work towards being more inclusive, including celebrating our differences.

Kasmin Cooney OBE is the Managing Director at RightTrack Learning.

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