Building an inclusive culture as part of your Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) strategy might include rolling out unconscious bias training, launching Employee Resources Groups and improving policies or benefits that are exclusionary (think paid parental leave for nontraditional family arrangements). DEI initiatives like these are critical, but language also plays a big part in creating an inclusive culture.

The words you use represent your organization—and where it stands on DEI. Be intentional with your language, and you’ll show your employees you’re committed to DEI and creating a sense of belonging for all.

What Is Inclusive Language?

Inclusive language is language that treats everyone equally and acknowledges the full range of human diversity with respect to race, gender, sexual orientation, veteran status, socioeconomic status and religion. It avoids expressions that exclude or marginalize particular groups of people or that perpetuate stereotypes. In essence, it avoids assumptions about people.

Why It Matters

The language you use can exclude others, whether intentionally or unintentionally—and this can have a big impact on every aspect of your business, from recruiting and retaining employees to increasing productivity and employee satisfaction.

Using inclusive language that conveys respect and promotes equality fosters empathy, which is crucial to an inclusive workplace where everyone feels they belong. It creates a shared experience in the workplace that helps unite employees and build valuable relationships.

Inclusive Language Tips

The first step to building inclusivity through language is to be aware. Be mindful of the words you use and how they may affect others; for example, when you write an email, ask yourself, am I excluding anyone? Take time to check your words in all forms of communication—whether speaking, Slacking a coworker or texting someone.

Here are a few tips on how you can integrate more inclusive language into your own work and help your organization adopt this behavior. Above all, remember to avoid mentioning gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or ability unless it’s relevant to the discussion.

  • Use people-first language. Use language that focuses on the individual, not the person’s characteristics. For example, say people with disabilities rather than disabled people or handicapped people, and avoid adjectives that can be alienating, such as “impaired” or “afflicted.”(See more examples of people-first language here.)
  • Use gender-neutral language. Avoid gendered language when you can use a gender-neutral word or phrase. For example, use spouse instead of husband or wife. Instead of using ladies, gals or guys, work in inclusive words like people, staff, members, teammates, colleagues, etc.Learn more about how to use gender-neutral language.
  • Consider how you use mental health terms. Do not use words that represent a real mental health diagnosis—like OCD or ADD—to casually describe everyday behaviors. Also, avoid using words like “schizo,” “psycho” and “crazy” to describe someone’s behavior in a derogatory fashion.
  • Consider the historical context of words and how their meaning might affect others. Some common idioms may have racist origins or be insensitive culturally. If you’re not sure about a particular word or phrase, google it to learn about its origin and meaning to determine if it could be considered offensive.

Language is constantly evolving and what may have been acceptable before may not be acceptable now. If you’re not sure about using a particular word or phrase, ask. Just remember we’re all still learning and there’s always room for improvement.

Creating Your Inclusive Language Guide

Need help integrating inclusive language into your organization? Contact us for your own customized inclusive language guide with a DEI glossary. Also, dig deeper into how DEI impacts employee experience.