The need for inclusive language in the office

How inclusive are common phrases and words like ‘pow wow’, ‘blacklist’, ‘guys’ and ‘master’?

Buoyed by flexible work patterns, hot desking, emerging technology, and more, the workplace has changed almost beyond recognition over recent years. Whilst certain behaviour, like being late for a meeting or pinching a colleague’s lunch from the shared fridge, has never been considered appropriate work manners, other parts of office etiquette have remarkably shifted. As recent as the 1990s, you couldn’t enter certain office buildings unless you had on a suit and tie.

Another trend that has drastically shifted within the workplace is what is and isn’t acceptable workplace language. Forward-thinking HR experts agree that dropping certain phrases and replacing them with more inclusive language will help create a safe and open, judgement- and bias-free environment.

Mind your tongue

Whilst this is not an exhaustive list, below are some recommendations that a business should look to implement to become more inclusive:

  • Using the term ‘blocklist’ or ‘allowlist’ instead of ‘blacklist’ or ‘whitelist’ to describe a list of blocked or favoured items.
  • Using the term ‘meeting’ or ‘gathering’ instead of ‘pow-wow’ when describing an impromptu get-together. This is because, in certain North American Indigenous communities, pow-wows are large, important cultural gatherings.
  • Using gender-neutral terminology as an alternative to gendered terminology such as manpower or ‘you guys’. This helps drive inclusivity by shifting attention away from gender-based norms and assumptions. If you commonly open meetings by saying “Hey guys”, practice using your favourite gender-neutral greeting instead, like “Hi, everyone”.
  • Avoid using ableist language such as “the blind leading the blind”, “that’s lame”, or “you’re OCD”. Using humour or a metaphor to refer to disability, mental health, or medical conditions diminishes the experience of those affected and their allies. Far better to choose an alternate language to depict how you feel.

Inclusive language

Using more inclusive language to communicate with colleagues and customers alike is to be applauded. Avoiding biases, slang, and expressions that discriminate against groups of people based on their race, gender, or socioeconomic status should become a key requirement for organisations. The culture throughout the business must be one that acknowledges diversity, conveys respect, is thoughtful of differences, and promotes equal opportunities.

The ultimate goal of inclusive language is to create an environment in which everyone is empowered to speak and feel confident that their voice will be heard. However, moving towards a more inclusive language culture should not be considered a ‘once and done’ activity. To be effective, it is imperative that HR teams continue to listen, learn, and request feedback from staff on what should and shouldn’t be included.

It is important to create a workplace that supports the diversity of the world in which we live. Words matter. Organisations should, therefore, continually evolve their communication policies to identify and remove outdated or insensitive language that could potentially offend.

ADP has developed an ‘Inclusive Language Guide’ to help employees navigate the use of language in the workplace. It includes inclusive language guidance and outlines the standards that the company expects from staff to equip them with the right tools to understand and embrace this shift.

ADP strives to be a leader that other organisations look to for best practices in creating a more diverse and inclusive work environment. We can only do this by being vigilant of the current sentiments within our communities. I implore you to do the same. By pulling in the same direction, we can facilitate change and help positively impact the workplace.

Sirsha Haldar is the General Manager, UK, Ireland & South Africa of ADP.

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