Non-Inclusive Language and Why it’s a Barrier to Inclusivity at Work

Teresa Norman - Non-Inclusive Language Blog

Teresa Norman, EW Group Diversity Consultant, discusses the importance of inclusive language in the workplace and explores three key areas of non-inclusive language use and their negative impact on inclusivity.

As I started to write this, I saw that a Government department was being lambasted for ‘politically correct’ training on inclusive language and of course, ‘wokery’. There was no question asked as to why anyone might have thought this training was useful. Or why officials dealing with incredibly difficult issues may need to know the kind of language that is appropriate and understand the damage we can do if we are non-inclusive.

In this blog, I set out the importance of inclusive language, the impact of non-inclusive language in three areas: stereotypes, stigma and conspiracy theories, and the actions organizations can take to build more inclusive cultures.

The importance of inclusive language

Using inclusive language in the workplace shows consideration to everyone. Our choice of words should be respectful and kind. This creates the space for everyone to feel their differences are respected and that their views will be heard. It is the building block of an inclusive workplace culture where no one feels they are an outsider, everyone feels welcome and that they belong. It takes a mindful approach where everyone is careful of the language they use and the impact it has. Nothing could be less true than the saying ‘words can never hurt me’.

What is non-inclusive language and what are its negative effects?

Non-inclusive language are words or phrases that treat people unfairly, are insulting or exclude a person or a group of people. If this happens in the workplace, people may become silenced, they may no longer feel accepted and part of the team. It can make people feel less confident in sharing their ideas or challenging bad practice. It will impact on their sense of belonging.

I will now explore three examples of non-inclusive language and make suggestions of how organizations can address them.

1. Stereotypes

Stereotypes: “A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.

The Oxford Dictionary

We are all stereotyped in different ways by our membership of different groups. Mostly, people know how they are perceived, the fixed and oversimplified views that people have of them.

As a white British woman with liberal views, different groups stereotype me in different ways. I am seen as part of a culture which does not look after its parents as they grow old – of course, those that do are seen as the exception, that is how stereotypes work. I live in London, so I have been part of the ‘Liberal Metropolitan Elite’ (LME). Of course, I agree that I have liberal views and live in a city but I would not describe myself as ‘elite’. Membership of LME is not something I have chosen but it has been conferred on me. I have been part of debates when my viewpoint has been taken as typical of the stereotype rather than my argument being heard. It’s very annoying and very silencing.

Every group is stereotyped in different ways, and some are more harmful than others. How I am stereotyped is irritating but it doesn’t significantly impact my being in the world; being able to speak out, the opportunities that come my way or my ability to grasp them. For many groups, they do have a significant impact.

Stereotype threat refers to the psychological phenomena where an individual feels at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about a group they identify with.

This has real consequences, particularly if you are from an under-represented group. The idea that you are confirming a stereotype can sometimes make people feel unable to be themselves, make complaints or raise serious issues. This leaves organizations in danger of not hearing vital information and many people with lost opportunities.

When we use non-inclusive language, we conjure up stereotypes.

2. Stigma

Stigma: “A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.”

The Oxford Dictionary

We do not all experience stigma but if and when we do, it is terrible. We may find that as our life changes, we become the subject of stigma; for instance, some people may experience it because they have a particular illness, or they fall into debt or become refugees. There can also be something about what we can and cannot do that makes us feel stigmatised like not being able to read. Or we are born into a group that is marginalised by society, so this is our whole life experience.

Stigma creates silence. It can make our circumstances unspeakable and if it is unspeakable, it cannot be owned or dealt with. We know now more and more about the importance of being able to put things in words, to share. Stigma prevents this happening.

In a blog on Migrant Voice, Loraine Mponela Masai who has recently published a book of poetry, describes how ‘when you are an asylum seeker, all you want is to hide because of the stigma”.

We create stigma when we use a disrespectful term for a group of people, when we make assumptions or jokes/banter about a physical or mental health condition, race, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status etc. The media, of course, plays a critical role in creating stigma if it shows a particular group negatively.

Over the last few years, many organizations have worked to reduce stigma in different areas, particularly on mental health and the menopause. Currently, we hear a lot about people experiencing stigma if they can no longer afford to pay their bills due to the cost-of-living crisis. As a result, we are beginning to understand the importance of organizations creating space to talk about financial wellbeing.

Organizations can challenge stigma through progressive policies and encouraging open management-led conversations and calling out non-inclusive language use.

3. Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories: the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties; spec. a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event.

The Oxford Dictionary

Conspiracy theories can lead to awful consequences.  Currently, in the news, we are hearing a lot about how Andrew Tate’s misogyny has influenced millions of young men. Hearing these views expressed in the workplace would be deeply distressing to women and to many men. As part of safeguarding staff, employers should consider how to prevent conspiracy theories taking root in their organizations.

Conspiracy theories are the most damaging and most oppressive use of non-inclusive language. They are deeply threatening to a group that is the subject of them. Both the internet and social media have unfortunately been effective instruments in spreading them and creating millions of followers.

What can we do? Encouraging diverse networks makes people less likely to believe in them. We can expose the flaws in thinking that make someone believe that one group is manipulating events – this involves asking questions and showing through your inquiry how unlikely the theory is to be true. Professor Marius Turda who has studied eugenics observes that you need to help people question the authority of those promoting the theory.

How can an organization as an entity protect different groups of staff from the danger of conspiracy theories? Being an inclusive employer should help – it starts with recruitment – ensuring that the people you employ share your values. Providing leaders with inclusive leadership training and staff with unconscious bias training will create a context in which staff will have the critical thinking skills and knowledge to challenge conspiracy theories.

I also suggest considering in your equal opportunities and Dignity at Work policies explicitly adding ‘sharing conspiracy theories that any group (protected characteristic) is responsible for particular events’ is listed in what constitutes harassment. Your policies help you manage challenges as they come up by providing specific guidance to managers.

Creating an inclusive culture where employees feel valued and respected

Inclusive language is crucial in making staff feel safe at work and able to voice concerns, and this in turn protects the organization. There has been huge learning recently in how to give voice to issues that were previously stigmatised. As always in DEI, there is much more to do.

We know the evidence says that organizations make better decisions if they are inclusive and are, of course, more attractive to job applicants. People want to work somewhere they feel their opinion matters, that their ideas are sought out and where they will be accepted. Organizations invest a great deal in engagement surveys because they know that motivated staff matter. Motivation is a precious commodity that needs nurturing. Inclusive language is about caring for all your employees.

“Inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time.”
Forbes – Diversity + Inclusion = Better Decision Making At Work

EW Group can offer you support in making sure that your workplace is inclusive and a place where people feel accepted and able to be themselves. With over 35 years’ experience, we are specialists in helping organizations create inclusive cultures and can help you ensure your leaders and managers understand how to avoid non-inclusive language use.

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