Lead With Inclusive Language: Why It Matters And How To Do It

by | Mar 11, 2021

No matter what happens in our ever-changing world, it never hurts to add kindness to your words. By making inclusive language the norm in your company culture, you can maintain a sustainable customer base, while cultivating the strongest talent anyone can find.

Empathy is always in high demand. True inclusion — which creates a sense of belonging that runs far deeper than surface diversity — is increasingly valued by consumers, employees and even investors. This means there’s no room for prejudice or discrimination at work. (That was always the case, but now there are more champions out there for it.)

To start eliminating biases and begin creating a brand and workspace for everyone, you need to start by examining how you communicate — straight down to the exact words you choose.

We’ll provide some pointers to help you and your team commit to inclusive language.

What is inclusive language?

Inclusive language is a form of communication that avoids biased or discriminatory language. The goal of inclusive language is to represent all members (and potential members) of a group equally, without preference.

For example, when we speak about our member base as a whole in our coworking space, we always opt for terms like “entrepreneurs” and “business people” over “businessmen.” When celebrating the holiday season, we choose “happy holidays” over “Merry Christmas.”

Beyond gender and religion, inclusive language may aim to include all cultures, races, ages, sexual orientations and economic classes — the list goes on.

The need for inclusive language isn’t always obvious. Phrases like “hey guys” and “ladies and gentlemen” are embedded into our culture and used for all audiences. They feel natural to us — a fact that makes training ourselves to be mindful about our words even more important.

Why inclusive language matters

Inclusive language gets a lot of flack for being too politically correct or hypersensitive. But even if you don’t care to be extra considerate (we recommend you do), the financial need for inclusion speaks for itself. Here are a few facts to consider:

  • Women drive over 70% of consumer spending.
  • Asian American and Hispanic buying power is rapidly rising, accounting for roughly $2.5 trillion combined.
  • Americans with disabilities make up one in six people in the U.S. and their spending power is increasing, too.

Historically disadvantaged groups make up some of the fastest rising consumer groups. At the same time, many remain largely untapped markets. By catering your customer experience to these groups — or minimally, avoiding stereotypes — you can become the preferred brand for a wider network of buyers.

Empathy also makes a difference inside your company, too. Building a culture of inclusion directly drives diversity in the workplace, which leads to better decisions, higher profits and more engagement.

When you start to expand your team, a brand that displays its compassion through inclusive language will encourage more diverse people to apply. This will give you a higher volume of strong applicants to choose from.

Five inclusive language principles to remember

A company-wide commitment to inclusive language starts with you. As a leader, you need to take a stand and show your team members what this part of your inclusive culture looks like.

To help you get started, here are five principles of inclusive language to live by:

1. Use people-first language

As a rule of thumb, any descriptors should be placed after the person or group. For example, “people with diabetes” is preferred over “diabetic people.” This puts the focus on the individual, so as to show that they’re greater than one attribute.

Descriptors should also always be respectful. It’s better to say “people experiencing poverty” than to say “people who are poor,” since the former recognizes that the group is not always tied to their current situation. Plus, the first phrase doesn’t imply victimhood. 

2. Use neutral terms

From gender neutral pronouns (“they” over “she” or “he”) to phrases that encompass all sexual orientations (“partner” over “husband” or “wife”), neutral terms ensure that you’re never othering a person — accidentally or otherwise.

Only specify when it’s actually relevant to a conversation or you’re speaking about a specific person and know their preferences.

3. Ask instead of assume

No one knows everything about a person’s identity at first glance. When it’s relevant, ask questions instead of assuming racial identity, preferred pronouns and more — but don’t force it if they’d prefer not to answer.

It’s the same thing as asking someone what they’d like to be called. Just like you wouldn’t like being called Bob if you’re a Joe, you wouldn’t want someone to dismiss a part of your identity you strongly identify with.

4. Opt for clear phrasing

In both your marketing and your internal communications, write what you mean as clearly as possible. This often means avoiding jargon, which only speaks to niche groups.

Especially if you have a global audience, idioms should be avoided at all costs. After all, imagine what your audience would think if “raining cats and dogs” were taken literally!

5. Don’t always reciprocate

Just because someone uses a word like “chubby” to describe themselves, that doesn’t mean you should too. Be aware of what words or phrases might be insensitive for you to use. Again, if you’re not sure, ask before proceeding.

How to encourage inclusive language at work

Leading by example is a great way to reinforce inclusive language, but in order for your team to commit to it in the first place, you need some more direct measures. Here are a few ways you can promote greater use of inclusive language:

  1. Provide diversity and inclusion training for your team.
  2. Continue offering resources for your team to practice and learn more about inclusion.
  3. Include inclusive language expectations in your code of conduct.
  4. Encourage employees to speak up if they feel uncomfortable with language being used. This goes hand-in-hand with building a culture of trust.
  5. Proactively ask for feedback about the level of inclusion on your team, allowing anonymous responses for those who don’t feel comfortable sharing openly.

Commit to constant improvement

Even when your team has strengthened its understanding of inclusive language, there is always room to grow. Continue listening to voices from underserved communities. Don’t be afraid to be corrected and let your diverse team members lead you in the right direction.

To sum it all up: Don’t be an asshole.

Want to see how we’re working on building diversity and inclusion in our coworking community? Check out our Inclusion Initiative today.